Back on His Feet
Tim Goebel was as embarrassed as he was perplexed, unable to comprehend why the quadruple jumps he had landed perfectly in practice twisted his body and mind into a pretzel during his long program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
He had felt ready, no longer hampered by the hip problem that kept him out of the Grand Prix series. And after becoming the first man to land three quadruple jumps in an Olympic program when he won the bronze medal at Salt Lake City last year, doing four quads at the U.S. competition shouldn’t have been a problem.
Except it was, and he couldn’t get past the first one.
“I don’t know how to explain it, except that I’ve just never felt this year that he’s been comfortable in his own skin,” said his coach, Frank Carroll.
That shaky performance, one of many bizarre mishaps that afflicted the men’s event, disturbed Goebel on a visceral level. Less because he finished second to Michael Weiss than because he believed he had done everything right beforehand, only to have it turn out wrong.
“He was depressed, no doubt about it,” Carroll said. “He didn’t expect to skate like that. He was not a happy camper.
“It’s like he’s never had a chance to get his feet under himself since the Olympics. Maybe everything he had to do since the Olympics is part of it, with the [Champions on Ice] tour and everything. He just seemed so fatigued. He’s gone through a tough time, but he’s worked hard.”
Skating is work for Goebel, and he approaches it with a businesslike manner and a perfectionist’s standards. He was back on the ice at El Segundo less than a week after the U.S. championships, pushing his disappointment into a recess of his mind so he could focus on preparing for the world championships, which begin today at the MCI Center in Washington with the men’s qualifying round.
Goebel, 22, acknowledges he demands a lot of himself and can’t easily forgive his mistakes.
“I think that’s why I’ve always been very successful,” said Goebel, the silver medalist at last year’s world championships behind Olympic gold medalist Alexei Yagudin of Russia. “The disappointing thing at nationals was not the fact that I didn’t skate well as much as the fact I had prepared well. It’s not like I showed up out of shape or injured. Had I not been skating well before, I would have expected it.
“I have to look at it as sort of an anomaly. There was really no explanation. No one in that [top] group would come unprepared. For all of us to perform poorly, it was just one of those freak things.”
“It better not happen again,” he said, softly.
It probably won’t. Such meltdowns have been rare for Goebel since he left coach Carol Heiss Jenkins and his Cleveland training base to work with Carroll in El Segundo in the summer of 2000.
Carroll, who coached Michelle Kwan to four world titles and five U.S. titles, refined Goebel’s prodigious jumping skills and helped him realize that artistry comes from the soul, not muscle memory. He’s more consistent, as evidenced by his second-place finishes at the 2000 and 2002 U.S. championships, his 2001 U.S. title and his rise from 11th at the 2000 world championships to fourth in 2001 and second last year.
“The last two or three years I’ve just sort of tapped into my full potential in terms of the whole package, not just jumping,” said Goebel, who has been living on his own near the El Segundo rink since his mother, Ginny, moved back to the family home near Chicago. She still visits for a week or two each month to take care of his travel arrangements and other off-ice business.
“But I think my jumps have improved a lot with Frank,” Goebel said. “I think my spins are better and the overall quality of my skating has improved.”
No question. But he’s still stuck with the label of being a great jumper and incomplete artist. Good field, no hit. It has been difficult to shed. Impossible, perhaps.
“I’ve really made an effort, and I really feel I’ve made a lot of improvement in that area,” said Goebel, who took economics classes at Loyola Marymount last semester but took a break to concentrate on skating. “Certainly, I think the crowd recognizes that. The judges are starting to, but they’re at a disadvantage because they may see me only once a year, and they’re not going to see as much change as if they’d see me regularly.”
Because the hip injury curtailed his practice time and prevented him from fully developing a new long program, he went back to the “American in Paris” routine that was so successful for him last season. Its whimsical air suits his slight build, and his performance evokes memories of Gene Kelly, another seemingly ordinary man whose quick, agile feet transformed him into an extraordinary artist.
“If you connect with the music,” Goebel said, “I think that counts for more than just having good choreography or having great steps. You have to have feelings for it.”
He will perform it as he did last season, with three quads, not four. Not because it’s safer, he said, because the exertion of doing triple axels or quads is about equal for him. “I just feel more comfortable with the layout of the program,” he said.
Carroll is more comfortable too. “I think he’s made his expectations a little more conservative,” Carroll said. “You reach those expectations by skating well rather than by setting records and setting the world on fire.
“Maybe next year, after he works hard this summer, he can go back to four. The [Champions on Ice] tour isn’t so long this year. It ends [June 1]. After that, he’ll have time to train next season’s programs and maybe he’ll be a little more comfortable.”
Not that Carroll has given up on this season. “We’re going to Washington hoping for the best,” he said. “Let’s hope this will be the best effort of the year.”
Goebel’s best could be good enough to win his first world title. Yagudin isn’t competing because of a sore hip, and Olympic silver medalist Evgeni Plushenko of Russia sometimes alienates judges by masking his strong technique with melodramatic programs. Weiss has been wildly unpredictable, and 2002 world bronze medalist Takeshi Honda of Japan can’t match the difficulty of Goebel’s programs.
“Plushenko is the favorite just because he’s had the best season and he’s a great skater,” Goebel said, “but I don’t see him as being better than everyone else. He’s a great skater.... But technically he does the same or less as the rest of us.”
* What: World Figure Skating Championships.
* When: Today through Sunday.
* Where: MCI Center, Washington.