U.S. sending three Olympic rookies to Torino

ST. LOUIS -- Don't know any of the men on the U.S. Olympic figure skating team?

Don't feel too bad. They're all new to this Olympic thing, too.

Gone from the team are veterans Michael Weiss, who skated in the previous two Winter Games, and Timothy Goebel, who claimed a bronze medal in Salt Lake City. So for the first time since 1976, the U.S. men's skating team will feature three Olympic rookies: Johnny Weir, Evan Lysacek and Matthew Savoie.

"It is odd to think back to the last Olympics and think it was Tim and Mike and Todd [Eldredge] and now none of them are here," said Weir, who claimed his third consecutive U.S. title, which automatically secured a spot on the team. "I thought our federation would send a past Olympian just to get some experience on the team. "It's a fresh slate."

For Weir, Lysacek and Savoie, Saturday was a day they will always remember. Every since they were young and first took to the ice, they dreamed that they, too, would one day get a chance to march in the Opening Ceremonies.

"It's the reason you start skating," said Savoie, who was 9 when he started out. "You see Brian Boitano skating on TV, and that's who you want to be."

Savoie finished third at these championships. Four years ago, he was fourth -- one spot away from competing in Salt Lake City.

This time he ensured he was getting one of those three spots by performing a solid routine appropriately to music from the soundtrack of "The Mission." Savoie made just one mistake, falling on a triple lutz. He got a standing ovation and was second in the free skate.

Not many observers gave Savoie much of a chance of making this team. Not because he's not a strong skater, but because many thought at least one of the spots would have been taken by either Goebel or Weiss.

Savoie competed in two international events, but placed fifth and seventh. He also has a packed schedule, volunteering 10 hours a week at a non-profit legal services firm and was somewhat off the skating radar screen practicing in his hometown of Peoria rather than some big-time training facility with one of the sport's "name" coaches.

"I don't feel like I was the forgotten man" Savoie said. "If anything, I felt like I was self-exiled."

For Goebel and Weiss, however, it was a day they would prefer to forget. A one-time jumping king and national champion, Goebel performed like a shell of his old self. He popped out of both triple axels and stepped out on the landing on a quadruple toe loop. Just four years ago, he landed three quads in the long program to land on the Olympic medal podium.

Goebel had planned on these nationals -- his ninth at the senior level -- to be his last at the U.S. Championships. He spent the last four years with one goal in mind: to compete in Torino. But after botching just the second jump of his routine, he began to feel his Olympic dreams slipping away.

The last four years have been tumultuous. Goebel was even fired by his coach, Frank Carroll. But he began training with Audrey Weisiger and seemed to be recharged for this season.

But his short program was disappointing, and he was fifth entering the free skate. Still, he tried to remain upbeat, believing he could easily overcome a four-point deficit in the long program.

"I prepared for this event better than I have before," a devastated Goebel said as he tried to maintain his composure. "I don't know what's wrong with me."

He wanted to leave the sport as an Olympian -- even if he didn't stand on the medal podium -- not as a guy who finished eighth in the free skate and seventh overall in the U.S. Championships, tears streaming down his face.

"I don't understand," Goebel said when asked about his future plans. "I don't know. I've wasted four years of life. I don't know what I'm going to do now."

He walked away from reporters after that, leaving a world that has given him so much success and for uncharted territory.

Weiss wound up fourth, less than five points out of third place. He seemed poised for making his third trip to the Olympics after placing second in the short program, but he had an error-filled free skate. He two-footed a quad and touched his hand on the ice on the landing. He also singled a planned triple axel. Weiss began ad-libbing his program, tossing in an extra combination in a last-ditch effort to gain points.

But the damage was already done. Had he landed the triple axel, he would have earned 7.5 points. A single axel, however, is worth zilch.

"It came down to one jump, really," Weiss said.

When Weiss stepped off the ice, he shook his head. He didn't have to look at the TV monitors with the scores to see whether he made the team.

"Well," he told coach Don Laws, "that's it."

Weiss was named the first alternate to the Olympic and world teams, but wasn't sure what path he'll take now.

"I don't know what my future holds," the 29-year-old Weiss said. "I was planning on training for the Olympics right now, and now I'm not."

The three men who will be training for the upcoming Games have their work cut out for them if any of them plan on contending for a medal in Torino. Weir won his third title, but even he said his performance "wasn't up to par."

Weir was skating to upbeat music, but it only accentuated the fact that he was slow and conservative. His usually intricate choreography wasn't as interesting, as if he was just focused on landing jumps rather than selling a full program. He landed seven triples, but didn't get credit for an extra combination he slipped in at the end of his routine.

"What cautiousness I had out there is simply because I was scared out of my mind," Weir said.

Both Weir and Lysacek admitted they will tinker with their routines to up the ante for the Games. None of the medal winners even attempted a quad, although Weir was landing some in practices this week and hopes to have one in Torino.

Although this trio has never stepped on Olympic ice, all of them have world championships experience. Lysacek captured the 2005 world bronze medal, Weir placed fourth and fifth the last two years and Savoie went twice, in 2002 and 2004, but hasn't placed better than 12th.

The competition will be fierce, with three-time Russian world champion Evgeny Plushenko considered the overwhelming favorite, but Swiss world champ Stephane Lambiel and Canadian champion Jeff Buttle chasing him closely.

"I'm not gunning for Plushenko," Weir said. "I'm gunning for a medal. A medal at the Olympics would be phenomenal."

If nothing else, Weir will make the Olympics interesting off the ice.

Known for his propensity for speaking his mind -- even if he ruffles feathers of the usually stuffy figure skating brass -- Weir already has offended officials this week by making drug references in remarks to the media. At past championships, he described his outfits as "an icicle on coke" and a "Care Bear on acid." US Figure Skating executive director David Raith was not amused.

"That was fun," Weir said of his conversation with Raith. "They entertain me. I love hearing bad things about myself, people reprimanding me for saying what I want to. I love that. Anyone would. I'm kidding. They have their interests to uphold and I have mine. When people have different interests they often clash. That's all it is.

"I'm not going to change something I mean to say. They have spoken to me. The things that I've said, I can understand. There are young people watching the sport and I don't want to offend anyone who might give some money to the federation or the sport."

Later he added, "I won't make any drug references today."

But he still pushed the limits. Weir said the victory and his berth to the Olympic team was more than he could have dreamed of, but added that "my mom is getting drunk already."

The party has begun. Just what this group will celebrate remains to be seen.

Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.