It was a stirring final sequence.
The music reached a crescendo as Jeremy Abbott completed his climactic spins at center ice, and he instinctively drew his hands to his head as the intensity peaked, and vanished.
Then, with a capacity crowd at Boston’s TD Garden roaring its approval at his weekend’s wholly compelling body of work, the 28-year-old veteran of seven previous U.S. national figure skating events visibly cracked and trembled before dissolving quickly into a full-on sob.
And in doing so—with a red-eyed pirouetting wave thrown in for good measure—he elevated his eighth and final domestic title-event showing from simply successful to instantly unforgettable.
“I knew I’d skated well enough to win,” he told NBC’s Andrea Joyce, moments after his forecast was validated with a narrow 4.19-point margin over second-place finisher Jason Brown. “I knew this was my last year at nationals. Everyone was on their feet and I wanted to soak it all in. I didn’t want to leave, because I know that this feeling is never coming again.”
The fourth domestic championship—he’d already won in 2009, 2010 and 2012—put Abbott in some heady company in U.S. historical circles, matching the number won by recent legends Scott Hamilton (1981-84) and Brian Boitano (1985-88). And the medal, his eighth in eight appearances after taking bronze in 2013 and pewter in 2007, 2008 and 2011, had a similar impact.
“I didn’t feel like I had to come here and win. I didn’t have to skate lights-out today,” he said, referring to the commanding lead yielded by the record-breaking 99.86 score posted in Friday’s night’s free skate. “I was skating to move on to Sochi, and I knew it was good enough to do that.”
But ironically, while the 174.41 he recorded Sunday was indeed sufficient to meet Olympic objective next month in Russia—where he’ll join teenage teammate Brown—the uneven finale did as much to magnify past foibles as it did to certify imminent dominance.
Brown’s free-skate score of 182.61 made up two-thirds of the deficit he’d incurred while finishing third behind Abbott and Richard Dornbush after Friday’s opening-night program. And based on the level of in-performance enthusiasm from fans on Sunday, he’ll be the American “it” guy to Abbott’s sage veteran persona when solo competition begins on Feb. 13.
That's without factoring in dings to the fender Abbott took for remarks made in the summer, which were less disagreeable than some gay rights groups would have liked when it came to speaking out against the Russian government's newly enacted law punishing those who promote nontraditional relationships.
"Maybe I don't agree with their policies, and maybe I don't agree with some things," he said via John Meyer of the Denver Post, "but that's for them to sort out. My speaking out just makes me look like an ass."
On the ice, Abbott went from national champion in Spokane to global also-ran in Vancouver in a previous Olympic berth that came immediately after a U.S. title win in 2010, and the most recent U.S. victory in 2012 was followed up by a third-place showing behind Max Aaron and Ross Miner in 2013.
So while the prevailing mood among the NBC broadcast crew was joyous, even Hamilton himself allowed for the possibility that Abbott could once again go from marvelous to meh.
“When he’s good, he’s as good as the best in the world,” the 1984 gold medalist in Sarajevo said as Abbott came up short on a scripted triple jump and barely held his balance upon landing a subsequent one, “but then this happens. He’s fighting for it. He knows he has to prove himself, not just for the title, but to prove he can do two solid performances at the Olympics.”
Regardless of next month’s fate, though, it’s clear Abbott’s competitive post-mortem will indicate complementary portions of enjoyment and advocacy alongside the accomplishments and stumbles.
He christened his “Pigs Can Fly” fan club in 2005 after he’d entered that year’s U.S. junior national championship event and forecasted his chances at a victory with the phrase “stranger things could happen, pigs could fly,” then won the title over a field that included two (Stephen Carriere and Douglas Razzano) of the men he beat again this weekend in Boston.
His older sister Gwen still wears a pink pig hat to all his competitions—both as a connection to the fan club and to make it easier for Abbott to find her and the family, which also includes his mother and stepfather, Allison and Allen Scott.
Abbott’s father Danny suffers from end-stage Parkinson’s disease. Its research efforts have been funded by the skater’s charity appearances in his Aspen, Colo. hometown, where Abbott first got on skates at age two and began competing two years later thanks to inspiration provided by decorated Englishman Robin Cousins, the 1980 Olympic champion.
“From the time I could walk, my mom would take me to the ice rink and hold my hand and walk around the ice," said Abbott, who was five when he first saw Cousins perform, to Colorado's 9News.com. "I saw him skate, and I was so mesmerized by what he could do. I told my mom, 'I want to do this.'"
Two decades, thousands of air miles and eight U.S. podium trips later, it’s clear that it was passion well-aimed. And it’s precisely the blue-collar, heart-on-the-sequined-sleeve mindset the old man plans to bring for his Valentine’s weekend finale in Asia.
"I'm ready to go back home and keep plugging away at our plan,” Abbott told USA Today's Gary Mihoces, “because that's what's been working for me.”