Evan Lysacek drives himself hard in pursuit of figure skating gold


There always has been an austere quality about Evan Lysacek.

He is tall, angular, often dressed in black, always concerned about having everything about his life in order.

You see this side of him immediately upon entering his Los Angeles house, especially in the pictures that he paints for relaxation.

Sasha Cohen, the 2006 Olympic figure skating silver medalist, has been Lysacek’s friend for 13 years. She once spent two months as his guest while taking acting lessons near the house Lysacek was renting in Hollywood.

“Everything is very perpendicular, very simple, very neat, very impeccable,” Cohen said of Lysacek’s style. “There is an element there of doing the best of his ability in every facet of his life.”

That is the side of Lysacek that strips away everything but the essential, which is intense training, when he goes to the practice rink.

It is the side his contractor father, Don, has seen since he and his wife, Tanya, told their three children to put away their toys after playing.

“Evan still puts his toys away,” Don Lysacek said Wednesday. “He even polishes them. Everything has to be perfect.”

That means driving himself as hard as he does the Range Rover that needs a new brake job every 1,500 miles, for Lysacek stops only at the last second. Frank Carroll, who calls Lysacek the hardest worker he has coached, long has needed to stop the skater from grinding down his body the same way.

“It’s hard to be motivated every day, but Evan knows how to do it,” said Olympian Mirai Nagasu, 16, who trains with Lysacek in Los Angeles.

Fourteen years of work have come down to 4 1/2 minutes of skating in Thursday’s long program that could make Lysacek, 24, the first U.S. man to win an Olympic gold medal since Brian Boitano in 1988 and the first reigning world champion to do it since Scott Hamilton in 1984.

“Honestly, I really am prepared,” Lysacek said Wednesday. “I don’t know when I have ever been so ready for any competition.”

That was apparent in Tuesday’s short program, when Lysacek skated so well that he was overwhelmed by the experience, covering his face to mask tears that became evident seconds later.

Never before had he blended artistry and athleticism as seamlessly, tossing off triple jumps, blazing through footwork, convincingly interpreting the passionate, triumphal music of Stravinsky’s “Firebird.”

The judges gave him a career-best score of 90.30 points, leaving him in a virtual tie with defending Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko of Russia (90.85) and Daisuke Takahashi of Japan (90.25) heading into the long program.

“Evan’s consistency is something I admire,” said Jeremy Abbott, U.S. champion the last two seasons, who finished 15th in the short program. “It takes a very strong mind to focus that intently and keep things on track all the time.”

Thursday, as he skates to music from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” Lysacek will count on that regularity -- everything neat, everything impeccable -- to overcome the more impressive jumping with which Plushenko piles up points.

“Evan is very driven,” said Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist. “He is all about the task.”

Wylie saw that when Lysacek walked past without saying hello a few days ago.

“It was like, ‘I’m not talking to you because it’s not important to my mission.’ I respect that,” Wylie said.

It is a mission that led Lysacek to leave home after his 2003 graduation from Neuqua Valley High in Naperville, Ill. He moved to Los Angeles to train with Carroll, now 71, who has coached three Olympic singles medalists -- Linda Fratianne, Timothy Goebel and Michelle Kwan -- but no champion.

Three years earlier, at 14, Lysacek had won the U.S. junior title as the second-youngest skater in the event. A year before that, he won the novice national title three weeks after a concussion suffered in a training fall briefly left him unable to spell some words or remember how to turn on a TV.

“After the concussion, I started coming to the rink every day,” his mother said. “What frightened me most is how fast he skated. Everything was moving too fast. I wanted him to go slow motion.”

His career did slow down for several frustrating seasons. Some easily make the leap from junior- to senior-level skating, but Lysacek finished 12th, 12th, seventh and fifth in his first four U.S. senior championships.

“I’ve had to overcome a lot of disappointment,” he said.

At his fifth senior meet, in 2005, Lysacek finally won his first U.S. medal, a bronze, thereby qualifying for his first world championships.

And then everything suddenly came together.

Lysacek went to the 2005 worlds hoping only to be among the 24 who would qualify for the long program. He won a bronze medal.

He won another world bronze in 2006 and his first of two U.S. titles in 2007 with a long program so technically dazzling -- a quadruple-triple jump combination and seven other triples -- that it had a sellout crowd in Spokane, Wash., jumping out of its seats to applaud.

The most significant blip came at the 2006 Olympics, when a flu-ridden Lysacek botched two jumps in the short program. He rallied in the long program, finishing fourth, and knew those two jumps cost him a medal.

“He spent the last four years getting ready for Vancouver and the last 14 years getting ready to have the world watch, not in a ‘Look at me’ sense but because he loves to compete,” Don Lysacek said.

Ironically, the mother who once felt compelled to see every moment of her son’s skating no longer can bear to be in the rink when he competes.

As she did for Tuesday’s short program, Tanya Lysacek will watch the long program from a facility that U.S. Olympic Committee sponsor Procter & Gamble has set up for the families of Olympic athletes. She stood outside Staples Center when her son won the world title there last year.

“It’s almost a superstition now,” she said then. “You know it’s illogical, but it’s so difficult being a mother.”

Thursday probably will be the last time she has to endure that parental anguish. Lysacek has indicated that he is ready to stop competing. He has inherited his father’s eye for space and design -- Don Lysacek’s company is called Color Style Decorating -- and wants to use that talent, first to remodel the four-bedroom house he recently bought in Las Vegas.

“Evan is very black and white, but he is a three-dimensional person with a lot of textures,” Cohen said.

So there is another side of Lysacek, what Cohen calls the “funny, quirky Evan” who loves good dinners, shopping at funky Hollywood boutiques and just living in Hollywood -- but who hasn’t gone Hollywood.

“He always has kept a really good balance,” Cohen said. “He is able to have fun when he needs to and still go to the rink and remain motivated.”

A few years ago, Cohen and Lysacek performed three shows in a Japanese rink that was miserably cold. Every so often since then, one has sent the other a text message exhortation to hard work that reads, “Get in the meat locker.”

Cohen always knew Lysacek never would put up a beef about that.