This retirement thing is working out pretty well for Ryan Bradley.
The 27-year-old who was so convinced he was done competing that he said goodbye at last year's nationals won his first title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Sunday. It was hardly a convincing victory, however. Bradley skated an unusually conservative performance that left him fourth in the free skate.
But his lead from the short program —and meltdowns by the guys who'd been right behind him —was enough to give him the title. And that's all that mattered to Bradley, who fell into his seat when he saw his winning marks.
"Nothing was pretty," Bradley said. "It was probably the ugliest national championship program ever, and I love it because of it. Because I had to be gritty."
Richard Dornbush, winner of last month's Grand Prix final —the junior version, that is —was second. Ross Miner, who won the 2009 U.S. junior title but missed nationals last year with a sprained ankle, was third.
Two-time defending champion Jeremy Abbott dropped to fourth with a flawed program.
"I'm extremely disappointed," Abbott said.
Safe to say, the Japanese and Canada's Patrick Chan probably won't be feeling all that threatened when they see the U.S. lineup for worlds. Bradley's best finish in two world appearances is 15th. Not only are Dornbush and Miner inexperienced, neither even tried the all-important quad Sunday.
And there's no guarantee the top three will go. The selection committee could opt to take the more experienced Abbott over Miner, who just turned 20 on Monday.
"Jeremy's a great skater," Miner said. "But going into this competition, (the world team) wasn't really on my radar. So I haven't had a chance to think about it."
Bradley has always been a fan favorite, with playful, theatrical programs that would make some Oscar winners jealous. But after finishing fourth at last year's nationals and missing the Olympic team, he figured it was time to hang it up. He even did a backflip as he left the ice, his way of saying goodbye.
But fans wouldn't let him go, flooding his Facebook and Twitter accounts with pleas to return. Finally, in mid-October, he acquiesced.
"When everyone originally asked me to come back, I could barely do a triple toe," Bradley said. "I said, `I'm going to go compete, have fun. I've got a bye to nationals, so no one can stop me.' I was going to do all these things just to get people to laugh ... Then I said, I'm lying to myself. I'm sick and tired of getting fourth and second and third. I don't think I've won anything in four years. I haven't even won a local competition. I always just do something stupid.
"Being able to come back and throwing down the short that I did and fighting through the long, it's an incredible feeling."
Perhaps it was skating last or being so close to the title, but Bradley was uncharacteristically flat. His jumps weren't that great, either, missing both of his quads and having shaky landings on a few other jumps. His footwork was fun to watch as he portrayed Mozart, pretending to play the piano and flirt.
He knew it wasn't his best performance, giving a sheepish grin when he finished. Oh, and he did another back flip as he left the ice.
"Let's keep in mind, I didn't even know if I'd won at that point," Bradley said. "I need to go home and make sure this really happened. We were on the podium with our flowers and I was like, `I don't think you can smell in dreams. So I smelled the flowers to make sure I'm awake."
Dornbush had never medaled at nationals at any level, and worlds would be his very first international event as a senior. But the 19-year-old made a big leap from finishing 11th at his first senior nationals last year, and is clearly a skater on the rise. His "Sherlock Holmes" program was well-rounded and almost flawless technically. He landed eight triples, two in combination, and displayed a nice feel for the music.
Miner's program was solid, with the only flaw a shaky landing on his triple loop.
"We were both pretty excited," Dornbush said. "Every time someone dropped below us, I'd shake Ross's hand."
Olympic champion Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir haven't competed since the Vancouver Games, and it's always important for countries to start rebuilding as quickly as they can. But this can't be quite what the U.S. had in mind.
Abbott should be the cornerstone of this next quadrennium. His technical ability is second-to-none, and coaches who want to show their students about edge quality and control ought to just pop in a DVD of one of his skates. He has a feel for the music that can't be taught, his ability to acknowledge the change of pace and mood of a piece second nature.
But he's one of the most enigmatic skaters in the world, with a history of crumbling when the pressure is on, and Sunday was no different. He made several technical errors, including a bad fall on the triple lutz and putting a hand down on his second triple axel. Mroz, hoping to rebound from his disappointing sixth-place finish last year, was inconsistent and uninspired, and dropped all the way to seventh after being third in the short program.