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In Men's Figure Skating, U.S. Pins Hopes On A New Class

Jeremy Abbott suffered a brutal fall during his short program Thursday.
Bernat Armangue
Jeremy Abbott suffered a brutal fall during his short program Thursday.

What's the hardest sport at the Winter Games — biathlon, aerial skiing, snowboarding, or high-flying slopestyle?

Jeremy Abbott thought it was one of those until an Olympic official told him otherwise. "Hands down," he was told, "absolutely, figure skating is the hardest."

Abbott may not completely agree, but he says it's the rare affirmation he's gotten as a male figure skater.

"Growing up, people were like, 'Oh, figure skating — you guys are sissies. ... I got picked on and teased a lot as a child for doing what I do," he says. "So to hear someone, kind of like, stand up and be like, no, figure skating's freakin' tough, I was like, 'Yeah, man! It is!' "

Abbott is one of two skaters — along with 19-year-old Jason Brown — who represent the near future of the sport in America.

For Abbott, though, figure skating has been tough. He's 28 and has spent more than a decade climbing the ranks. A disastrous performance in Vancouver put him in ninth, and on Thursday, he fell so hard that a beat reporter called it one of the worst falls she'd ever seen. He lay on the ground for what seemed like an eternity until the crowd willed him on.

Abbott has spent a career in the shadow of the more controversial Johnny Weir and the more successful Evan Lysacek, who won gold in 2010. Both have retired, and on Thursday four-time medalist Evgeni Plushenko stunned the skating world and Russian fans by withdrawing because of injury.

With older stars gone, there are up-and-comers like Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu and Canada's Patrick Chan, who both performed almost flawlessly Thursday.

Lysacek says the Americans should be frightened of Hanyu's and Chan's consistency.

"Maybe their tricks aren't the most difficult, and maybe they're not the flashiest, the most exciting," he says. "But overall, the most consistent are the ones that to me made me not sleep at night."

Chan and Hanyu are technically great. But while they'll beat you, they may not thrill you. That's all Jason Brown wants to do.

On Thursday, Brown skated to Prince. He's a YouTube sensation, in part because of his off-the-charts enthusiasm and his Riverdance footwork on the ice. But YouTube viewers are less picky than judges.

"I want to branch out to people who aren't skating fans," he says. "I want to just branch out to the public and just grow skating as a sport."

He has the chance to do that on Friday night, and for a few more Olympics.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.