Monday, January 2, 2012

U.S. Nationals Nostalgia: Dallas 2003

Today I'm looking back at the 2003 U.S. Championships in Dallas as part of my series reflecting on the past eleven Nationals. I remember the weather in Dallas being very dreary and cold most of the week. Coincidentally, there were more than a few dreary performances inside the American Airlines Center.

This was the first year I was able to stay at the skaters' hotel, the sprawling Hyatt, and I enjoyed people-watching at breakfast every morning. With security tightened, spectators couldn't ride on the same shuttle buses to the arena as we had done in the past, so that part of the Nationals experience was gone.

The crowds were sparse for some of the early senior events, and I was able to sit in the first row for the original dance. Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto made me very happy when they skated their program lights-out, placing them first, ahead of the four-time champions Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev. But the youngsters couldn't hold onto the lead in the free dance as they made some errors, including a costly stumble on the circular footwork. Their time to reign would have to wait another year . . .

I think everyone who was in Dallas still talks about the final flight of the men's free skate. Not for its spectacular-ness but for its pitiful-ness. Johnny Weir was in second place after the short program and had a golden opportunity to win his first national championship. But like Belbin and Agosto, he succumbed to the expectations, only worse. He fell twice and then withdrew from the competition. In another bizarre turn of events, the strap on Matt Savoie's pants leg broke and the referee had to blow the whistle for him to stop and fix it. Disappointing performances also came from Michael Weiss and Tim Goebel. The one bright spot in the group was Ryan Jahnke, who skated to his first national medal, a bronze.

The pairs event also had some not-so-great performances, but there was a new pair that caught my eye and made me a fan - Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig. I had no idea the journey they would take me on as a fan over the next eight years and counting! I loved watching them do sprints on the ice at practice, and I thought it was so nice how they always thanked the volunteers who were working at the announcer's table.

The ladies' event provided much more excitement than the men's. Michelle Kwan's inspiring "Aranjuez" free skate brought the house down, a recurring theme for her free skates at Nationals. One of the things I most enjoyed seeing in Dallas was Yebin Mok finally putting it all together and delivering two solid programs. I'd loved her fluid style when I saw her in 2001 and 2002, but she just couldn't get the jumps down. In 2003, she rose to the occasion and skated great, especially in the short program, where she earned a standing ovation.

My sister is a Kennedy family history buff, so between events we had to check out the Sixth Floor museum in the Texas School Book Depository, from where Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly assassinated President Kennedy ("supposedly" because I'm a conspiracy theorist). We also walked to the highway where the presidential motorcade had passed, and we saw the infamous "grassy knoll." It was fascinating to see the site and picture how the events had unfolded back on that fateful day in 1963.

Next in the series will be 2004 Nationals in Atlanta - bright stars emerge in the junior ranks, another Michelle Kwan skate for the ages, and a little Gone With the Wind-themed sightseeing.

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