Unable to compete, Lysacek still finding joy in Sochi

'It's been heartbreaking,' Evan Lysacek said about not being able to compete.

SOCHI, Russia — At 7:15 p.m. on Thursday evening, Evan Lysacek was weaving through a cluster of reporters to get to the press section of a half-full Iceberg Arena in Sochi. With his iPhone in his right hand and a Russian candy bar in the back pocket of his jeans, the defending Olympic gold medal winner in men’s figure skating was now squeezing in between a pair of European journalists to get to his seat for the men’™s short program competition.

No handlers. No entourage. No "team." Lysacek, four years to the night from when he wrote his own chapter in Olympic figure skating history, was now 40 rows above the ice, dressed in street clothes, with a generic laminated media credential loosely dangling around his neck.

"What’d I miss so far?" the 28-year-old defending Olympic champion asked me as he settled into his seat. "I had to get through the line at security, so I missed the first few skaters." There’d be 28 more. He’d stay for every last one.

This — sitting next to me, in an auxiliary press box with a spotty wi-fi connection — wasn’t how Evan Lysacek envisioned his Sochi experience. Since the very moment he left Vancouver in 2010, he’d had his eyes set on defending his title and becoming the first man to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in figure skating since Dick Button did it in 1948 and 1952. Alas, a series of injuries, including a torn labrum in his left hip, forced him to withdraw from Olympic contention in December. Instead of another gold medal hanging from his neck this week, it’s the laminated media credential.

"It’s been heartbreaking," Lysacek says of his 2014 Sochi experience thus far. "It’s almost surreal watching them all skate tonight. It’s as if I’m watching a movie and I’m just not a part of it."

Working as an analyst on "The Today Show" and fulfilling several obligations to sponsors, Lysacek’s been trying to make the very most of his time here in Russia. But this isn’t what he wanted in 2014. "I tried pretty much every treatment possible," he explains as we watch a skater in the evening’s first group complete his short program. "It was just a grueling experience. And so painful. A lot of times, the treatment itself was tougher to take than the rehab. I did everything I possibly could to keep the dream alive. To not be out there is really hard."

"I was so desperate to find something that would save [his Olympic dream] — anything, really — that I’d agree to try just about anything," he adds. "I didn’t even think twice. This option? Do it. That option? Do it. This other one? I don’t care how much it costs, let’s do it. Some of the treatments weren’t covered by insurance, so that added up, too. It got really expensive. I didn’t care. I just wanted this so badly."

But Lysacek makes no excuses and refuses to hold a pity party. "That’s what comes with being an athlete, right? Sometimes, no matter what you do or try, your body just can’t do it, regardless of what your mind says. And really, I’ve learned so much through the whole experience."

Lysacek has been a familiar face at the Iceberg Arena this week, but he’s done a good job of ensuring that most of the interviews he’s done have been focused on the skaters competing and not him. "It’s their time now," he says. "This isn’t about me."

And yet, it’s difficult not putting yourself in his shoes and being washed over with empathy. What’s it like being the defending Olympic gold medal winner, wanting to compete, and not being able to? What’s it like being in the building and having to watch your rivals all compete in the event that you own?

I ask these questions to Lysacek but he doesn’t take the bait. He doesn’t waver. "I wish I was out there, but I’m not. That’s life. Someone else will step up and I’m excited to see who does."

When Russian skating legend Evgeni Plushenko was announced to the crowd Thursday night, a roar of applause emerged from all corners of the building. Lysacek clapped along with the Russian fans. But as he watched attentively from his seat in the press box, he let out an audible gasp. "Oh, no."

"What?" I ask, seeing Plushenko skating around the rink to the thunderous cheers of his native Russian fans.

"He’s hurt," he says. "He’s going to withdraw. Oh, this is terrible. Oh, this is sad. I feel awful."

A solid three minutes before the rest of the crowd learned that Plushenko was withdrawing from the competition due to medical concerns, Lysacek saw it 1,000 feet away from the ice with his naked eye.

Though skating fans may assume otherwise, Lysacek and Plushenko have an incredibly strong mutual respect for one another. Seeing his longtime rival have to pull out of the competition, under these conditions, appears to really affect Lysacek.

"Evgeni’s had 13 back surgeries. He wanted to go out on his own terms with one last final performance. But he’s hurt. He can’t go. I know it’s killing him to withdraw, too, because he’s the ultimate competitor."

Plushenko withdraws from the competition minutes later, and a stunned Iceberg Arena crowd reacts with gasps of their own.

SOCHI OLYMPICS IN PICTURES

Later in the evening, he’s quiet when American skater Jeremy Abbott awkwardly falls on his first jump and crumbles to the ice. He stares at the rink and says, "C’mon, Jeremy. Get up, Jeremy." When Abbott does rise to his feet after about 10 seconds on the ground, an encouraging Lysacek shouts, "Now finish strong!" Abbott dutifully completes his routine by nailing his final two jumps, and Lysacek nods in approval.

"This whole week has almost been like an out-of-body experience," he says during a break in the action. "Four years ago seems like yesterday, but at the same time, it seems like forever ago. I’ve grown so much in that time. My life’s changed so much. And yet, I can put myself exactly in the same mindset I was in that night right now if I had to. I’m always excited on nights like these, and that night, I was so ready. I was so excited. I was nervous, yes, but I wasn’t scared. I’m never scared."

It’s at this point in our conversation that Lysacek turns to me and makes a point. "What really kills me the most is that I’m such a better skater now than I was then. It’s night and day. I’ve improved so much. That’s what makes this whole week so difficult. I truly feel like I’ve never been a better skater than I am now."

Any sadness or sense of defeat is quickly washed away with perspective. "But athletes deal with injuries, and I’ve been really lucky to not have to deal with serious ones for the extent of my career. I’ve had bone fractures that I thought were the end of the world at the time, but these past four months have made me really understand and appreciate how fortunate I was for so many years."

One by one, the skaters complete their short programs. Lysacek provides insightful running commentary throughout. When 19-year-old American Jason Brown takes to the ice to perform, Lysacek notes, "He’s going to have a clean skate. You can tell he’s loving this experience and embracing the whole thing, as he totally should. He’s so loose. He’ll do great."

Brown goes on to have a clean skate and has a blast doing it. He finishes the night in sixth place, soaring well above any of the expectations the experts had for him coming into the 2014 Games.

When Kazakhstani skater Denis Ten, hardly a household name, completes his program, Lysacek is truly moved. "No one realizes how much Denis has overcome to get to this point. For him to do that just now? It’s just incredible." Ten battled back from a serious infection in 2013 to somehow find a way to qualify and compete in these Olympics. It’s these stories of triumph, redemption and conquest that seem to impact Lysacek the most. He’s an encyclopedia of information — both personal and professional — about his fellow skaters. Without Google or Wikipedia, he rattles off statistics and recalls memories of each man’s best and worst performances. He’s more than merely a student of the game. He’s a savant. "I love it," he says of figure skating. "I don’t know how you could do this your whole life if you didn’t love it."

Throughout the evening, Lysacek remains upbeat and cheerful. He’€™s funny. He jokes around with fellow skating legends Michelle Kwan and Elvis Stojko and he offers dry one-liners. He hums and bops his head to the music in between programs. He also dutifully prepares for his "Today Show" segments by explaining the technical terms of the sport in succinct sound bites that the everyman can understand.

He could have spent the night curled up in a ball, watching in solitude. He could have stayed home in the States and his sponsors would have understood. Instead, he’s seated next to me, hanging on to every quad, every triple axel and patiently explaining the complicated "€œGOE"€ (Grade of Execution) scoring system. He could be a lot of places, but he’s in the building. And you get the feeling, for as painful as it is for him not to participate, he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Three hours after arriving to the Iceberg, he’s approached by a visibly nervous Russian female fan. A volunteer, the young woman gathers herself, struggles with her nerves, and offers up her iPhone as if to ask for a photograph. Lysacek doesn’t hesitate and immediately puts her at ease. "Of course I’ll take a picture with you," he says with a smile. He gets up from his seat, puts his arm around her, and ask if she’s enjoying the skating.

"Yes," she says with a grin stretching from ear to ear. "I’m a big fan of yours," she says in English. "So is my friend," she says as she points across a few sections, where another Russian volunteer excitedly waves. Lysacek waves back and gives a thumbs up.

"We wish you were skating tonight," the volunteer says.

Lysacek laughs, looks to me, and nods. "So do I."

He’ll be in attendance again for Friday night’s men’s free skate and will then board a plane for St. Petersburg where he’ll speak on behalf of the U.S. State Department. Then, it’s back to rehab and recovery. The road’s been long, but he’s confident there’s a reward at the end.

Evan Lysacek is excited to get back on the ice and to feel the rush of competition once again sometime soon. "It’s been a difficult few months and these past few days have been pretty rough, but it’s only making me stronger," he says. "I recognize that."

Amazing perspective from a 28-year-old man.

"See you tomorrow?" I ask as we bid farewell at the end of the evening.

He grabs the laminated media credential around his neck, holds it up, and nods. "See you tomorrow."