What to make of Jeremy Abbott’s competitive figure skating career, now that he used a Thursday interview on the icenetwork podcast, “Ice Talk,” to bring it to an official end?
He was a blend of unquestionable brilliance and baffling mediocrity, the latter covering many of his scintillating moments in a dull finish.
With four senior titles, Abbott is among the most decorated men’s skaters at the U.S. Championships. In the past 65 years, only Todd Eldredge has won more national titles (six). Abbott won all his in the International Judging System era; no other U.S. man has won more than two in that 12-season period, none more than one in the nine seasons since Abbott won his first.
Abbott skated like a world-beater at several of those U.S. Championships, none more so than 2010, when his performances were better than those of the medalists at the Vancouver Olympics a month later.
And he skated at various levels of back-in-the-pack inconsequence in all his global championships, none more so than those 2010 Olympics, when he was 15th (!) in the short program and ninth overall.
He could skate with exquisite refinement and beauty, never more so than in his free skate at the 2012 nationals, which I described thus in the Chicago Tribune:
“With a kaleidoscopic rainbow of subtly intricate movements to music from Muse's `Exogenesis Symphony,’ Abbott made a loud statement that he is the gold standard among current U.S. men, earning his third national title in four years by winning the short program and free skate all three times.”
And he could crash and burn, never more so than in the short program at the 2014 Olympics, when he fell so hard on a quadruple jump in the short program that just getting up and continuing proved praiseworthy and drew roars from the crowd. Yet he would wind up 15th again (!!) in that short program and 12th overall, the worst Olympic finish by a reigning U.S. men’s champion since 1936.
Only a month earlier, in the 2014 nationals at Boston, Abbott had rallied from two subpar seasons to do the best short program of his career, with confident athleticism to match his striking performance skills. He was 28 then, the oldest man in the field, joking about being an old dog with new tricks.
To paraphrase “On the Waterfront:” He shoulda been a contendah. But in two Olympics and five worlds, the only time he got remotely close to a medal was the 2010 worlds, finishing fifth (nine points from third) in a field watered down by the absence of five of the eight men who finished ahead of him in the 2010 Olympics.
"It's not that I have to prove to anyone that I'm a great skater," he said at the 2010 nationals. "I know what I can do."
Yet he had been 11th at worlds the two previous seasons. When he did that as U.S. champion in 2009, it gave Abbott the distinction of having the lowest finish for the reigning U.S. champion at worlds since World War II.
Abbott tried everything to be the outstanding skater on the biggest international stages he was on the biggest national stage. Bothered for years by sleep issues on the road, he brought a queen-sized air mattress to the 2014 Sochi Games. As it turned out, the mattress would have better served as a cushion for his splats in the short programs of both the team event and individual event.
Frustration finally overcame Abbott publicly in Sochi. Asked the inevitable question about why he came undone in global championships, he responded with a profane tirade that was completely out of character.
"I'm frickin' proud of what I've done and I'm not going to apologize for anything," he concluded.
Abbott’s final real competition would be the 2015 nationals, where a fifth place was his lowest finish in nine senior nationals appearances.
The highlight of his career, at 2010 nationals, remains among the highlights of my 37 years covering skating.
Not until Nathan Chen last January has a U.S. man won the title more convincingly and brilliantly in the IJS era than Abbott did in 2010. His skating was terrific for any era.
At that nationals, all 21 of Abbott’s elements (including a quadruple jump and 12 triple jumps) deservedly received positive grades. He routed Evan Lysacek, then reigning world champion and soon-to-be Olympic champion, by 27 points.
Abbott's free skate interpretation of the hauntingly powerful music from Saint-Saens’ “Organ” Symphony was a skater’s dream, the “total package,” seamlessly integrating confident athletic skills and consummate artistic sensitivity. What Abbott had shown only in brief, intermittent glimpses over the previous two seasons had wondrously lasted for the nearly 7 ½ minutes of two programs in Spokane.
"That little nagging voice in the back of my head, when it told me I couldn't do it, I believed I couldn't," he said then. "I am learning I can tell that voice to shut up."
But it clearly never stopped ringing in his ears.