Jeremy Abbott

Surging Abbott sets U.S. record, skates into first at U.S. Championships

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BOSTON — In a program that was giving Jeremy Abbott nightmares, he delivered a dream come true on Friday night.

The three-time national champion was waking up in a cold sweat in the nights leading up to the U.S. Championships in Boston, but skated to a 99.86 at TD Garden to not only set a new U.S. record, but also launch himself into first place in an Olympic year.

“I was having these nightmares where I was in seventh place and too far out to make the Olympic team,” Abbott explained. “I would wake up crying; it was horrifying. Every single night I had this dream where I imploded in the short program.”

Abbott broke a record that 22-year-old Richard Dornbush set earlier in the night, the California-based skater electrifying the crowd with a 92.04. Teenager Jason Brown, just 19, was third, scoring a 87.47.

Abbott had made it public that this would be his final U.S. Championships, the Nationals winner in 2009, 2010 and 2012 saying that he would hang up his skates after this season – Sochi or not.

Davis/White skate closer to historic sixth U.S. title

“This whole week has been really special for me,” the 28-year-old Abbott told reporters. “I just wanted to live in it because it’s never happening again.”

But his program will happen again and again online in the digital archive, where fans will see that he started off with a monstrous quadruple Salchow-triple toe combination that sent the crowd into roars.

Abbott, who flopped at the Vancouver Games to a ninth-place finish, has been known to slip up – literally – when he gets his big elements under his belt. But he didn’t do that in Boston, the veteran hitting a triple Lutz and then later a triple Axel, skating with a kind of vigor and energy that only a record-setting performance can contain.

“I’ll never forget this performance,” Abbott said plainly.

Nor will Dornbush his. Second in 2011, Dornbush has been up and down for the last two seasons, placing a dismal 13th in 2012 and sixth a year ago. But he delivered a career-best as just the second skater of the night, sending a “top-that” message to his competitors with a landed quadruple Salchow and then a triple-triple combination.

“I’m not really a New Year’s resolution person, but I just said, ‘You know what? I want to land more quadruple Salchows in competition,'” Dornbush told reporters.

Abbott adores the ‘underdog’ status

Crowd favorite Brown, who was beaming after his short, doesn’t have a quad in his reportoire but that didn’t seem to matter, the Chicago native saving a triple Axel early and then drawing in an admiring Boston crowd.

“Being such a crowd favorite can be such a blessing and a curse,” Brown’s coach Kori Ade told NBCOlympics.com. “This has all come so quickly this year, having this much fan support where he’s stepping onto the ice and there’s more pressure on him.”

The pressure seemed to hurt Olympic hopefuls Max Aaron, the reigning U.S. champion, and a resurgent Adam Rippon, who placed fourth and sixth, respectively.

Only two American men will be placed on the U.S. Olympic team for Sochi, presumably the top two skaters at these Championships. But the U.S. Figure Skating Association will not name its team until Sunday night, following the men’s free skate, utilizing its international panel to select the two skaters.

“That was just fun,” Abbott said, breaking into a smile. “But I still have four and a half minutes to skate, eight more triples.”

And perhaps – if he can execute it – one more dream performance.

U.S. figure skating could have its best world team since 2006

Nathan Chen performs during the men's free skate competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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KANSAS CITY — U.S. figure skating has a shot at medals in three of four disciplines at the world championships in Helsinki in two months, which hasn’t happened in 11 years.

Before this year, the U.S. men and U.S. women hadn’t boasted simultaneous medal contenders in a decade. Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek spent the 2010 Olympic cycle in the world elite, while the U.S. women faded. After they stopped competing, Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold moved into the women’s medal field while the U.S. searched for a new leading man.

He’s arrived. Nathan Chen confirmed he is one of the world’s best male skaters by landing a record seven quadruple jumps between two programs at Sprint Center this past week.

The 17-year-old already made the podium in an event that featured the world’s best, earning silver at the Grand Prix Final in December. Chen struggled with his short-program jumps at the Grand Prix Final and attempted one fewer quad overall yet still outscored everybody but Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

Of all of the U.S. medal hopes at worlds, Chen may face the stiffest trio of challengers. Not only is there Hanyu, but also two-time reigning world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain, plus Japan’s Shoma Uno, all of whom rank higher than Chen in best total scores in international competition this season.

MORE: Chen believes Olympic gold is possible after U.S. title

Wagner, who shares a coach with Chen, did not have her best nationals. She finished second to surprise winner Karen Chen (no relation to Nathan), who has yet to factor internationally.

But Wagner said before and after the U.S. Championships that her focus was to peak for the world championships. The goal for nationals was to make the world team, which required not winning but finishing in the top three. Mission accomplished.

The concern with Wagner is that she hasn’t produced a world medal-caliber result yet this season. Her best score from the fall ranks her sixth among women going to worlds. But Wagner has shown in the last few seasons that she can pull it together for major events. There’s her 2016 World Championships silver medal, plus her three straight Grand Prix Final medals from 2012-14.

At worlds, Wagner will have to deal with a Russian trio capable of sweeping the podium, three strong Japanese skaters, plus the revelation of this season, Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond.

VIDEO: Wagner passed Puffs in emotional press conference moment

The U.S.’ strongest discipline continues to be ice dance. Maia and Alex Shibutani and Madison Chock and Evan Bates finished second and third at the 2016 World Championships. They went one-two at the U.S. Championships this past week.

But two ice dance medals don’t appear to be in the cards in Helsinki. That’s because Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who earned gold and silver at the last two Olympics, came back this season after a two-year break.

Virtue and Moir broke international scoring records in the fall, sweeping their four starts. The two-time reigning world champions, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, also beat the U.S. couples at the Grand Prix Final.

The Shibutani siblings and Chock and Bates have never finished ahead of Virtue and Moir in competition. Neither has bettered the French since the December 2014 Grand Prix Final, either.

But all it takes is one dance medal, plus Chen and Wagner at their best in Helsinki, and the U.S. could go into the Olympic year in its best place since 2006.

MORE: Gracie Gold comments on split from coach Frank Carroll

Laurie Hernandez discusses life after Rio, new book on TODAY (video)

Laurie Hernandez
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Laurie Hernandez‘s book, “I Got This: To Gold and Beyond,” is out Tuesday, and the Olympic champion gymnast stopped by TODAY on Monday to discuss its contents and life post-Rio.

An excerpt on Hernandez’s experience in Rio and the story of her floor-exercise wink to judges, is here.

On TODAY, Hernandez discussed another interesting anecdote from the book about tissues.

“Before Olympic Trials, we went out to eat, and I had a little breakdown because practice was really rough, and my routines weren’t coming the way I wanted them to,” she said. “This poor waitress kept bringing me over piles of tissues. … We were leaving, and my sister [Jelysa] told my dad, I’m going to save these tissues. I’m going to give them to her when she makes the team. I’m thinking to myself, you guys are crazy, this is not going to happen.”

Hernandez went on to finish second to Simone Biles at the Olympic Trials and make the five-woman Olympic team as the first U.S. female Olympian born in the 2000s.

The family celebrated the achievement, where Jelysa handed the tissues to Hernandez in a bag.

“Even when you fell, you couldn’t believe in yourself, we were there for you,” Jelysa told her.

“So it was a really defining moment,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez is away from gymnastics while promoting her book and touring with “Dancing with the Stars,” but she is expected to return to the sport at some point.

MORE: Hernandez explains 2017 goals: First date, driver’s license, Law & Order