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World title not a burden at all for Lysacek

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TORONTO (AP)

The rink is filled with skaters of all ages and abilities, so packed coaches occasionally must play traffic cop just to clear enough space for a run-through.

As Evan Lysacek begins his free skate, however, the other skaters stop and drift back to the boards. It's a brand-new program with plenty of work still to be done, yet the entire rink is silent, mesmerized by his power and grace.

"People said to me that when they watched him in practice, they thought he was different. I was unaware of it because I watch him every day," longtime coach Frank Carroll said. "I said, 'How is he different?' They said he skates like a world champion now. He looks like he has that air and that confidence of a world champion."

Winning the world title the year before the Vancouver Olympics would seem to bring a crushing burden. Expectations, already high, climb a little further. Obligations, from the media to the federation to sponsors, pile up. Fellow skaters, if they need motivation, focus on you.

If anything, though, the title has freed Lysacek.

There's something empowering about knowing you really can hold your own - and then some - against anyone in the world. Something inspiring, too.

"It could have made me feel like, 'OK, that's it, who cares what happens from now on,"' Lysacek said. "It had the opposite effect, and it sort of made me feel like anything is possible.

"I'm not going to expect anything, but I'm certainly not going to doubt that it could happen. I'm going to just go into the season and feel like I have an open book, and I'm going to write it as each day goes on."

Lysacek officially kicks off his Olympic season Friday at the Cup of China. His toughest competition there should come from Japan's Nobunari Oda, winner of the season's first Grand Prix event, Trophee Eric Bompard.

But, judging by last week's Rostelecom Cup, Lysacek's biggest competition will be Evgeni Plushenko. In his first international competition since coming out of retirement, the Olympic champion routed a field that included three-time U.S. champ Johnny Weir and Takahiko Kozuka, silver medalist at the Grand Prix final.

No man has repeated as Olympic champion since Dick Button in 1952. Then again, no American man has won the Olympics since Brian Boitano in 1988, and Scott Hamilton (1984) is the last reigning world champion to claim the gold.

"I certainly don't want him to go to the Olympic Games with any expectations of winning whatsoever," said Carroll, who coached Olympic silver medalists Linda Fratianne and Michelle Kwan and bronze medalist Tim Goebel. "Going into the competition with the thought, 'I'm the world champion,' sure, people are going to know who he is. But they're not necessarily going to think his skating is the best. He's got to prove it.

"The person that lets it all hang out, that lets it go, that gives it every drop of their blood there at that moment and puts their whole being into that performance or that competition, frequently, they're the ones who achieve."

Carroll doesn't need to sell his pupil on that concept. All Lysacek has to do is look back at the world championships.

A true California kid (by way of the Chicago suburbs), Lysacek is Zenlike and sunny, and his personality is often the best part of his programs. But at this year's national championships, he was so focused on his technique and changes he and Carroll were trying to make that his programs were like rough sketches, no color or life to them.

Not only did he not win a third straight title, he finished third. Add in his failure to medal at the 2007 world championships and the freak injury that kept him home in 2008, and Lysacek hit what he calls the "low point" of his career.

"I think every athlete goes through a little bit of doubt in their career, and I definitely went through it," he said. "It was like, 'I love skating and I've tried my entire life and trained day in and day out and given it everything, but maybe this just isn't going to happen for me.'

"That's thinking the destination, not the journey."

Using every trick he had, Carroll pulled Lysacek together for Four Continents, just two weeks later. Lysacek won the silver medal and then, a few weeks later, came here to work with his longtime choreographer, Lori Nichol.

Nichol has always focused on a skater's relationship with the ice, believing everything builds from that. You can fix problems with technique or artistry. But if a skater doesn't feel the ice, you may as well as pack it in and go home.

As the days passed, Lysacek realized he was having fun again.

"I've had a great journey," he said. "Once I came to that realization, I let go of trying to control everything and train, train, train, train, train and control and force it when I competed. I just wanted to have fun, and that seemed to be the right formula for me."

He returned for the world championships in Los Angeles eager to skate for his family and friends and Carroll, not for a spot on the podium.

Skating in a building he considers his second home - a big Lakers and Kings fan, he's a frequent visitor to the Staples Center - Lysacek was electrifying. The audience was on its feet well before his music ended, and Lysacek was pumping his arms in celebration while still doing his final combination spin.

For the first time since 1996, an American man was the world champion.

"He will be a world champion the rest of his life," Carroll said. "That credential alone is something remarkable and unique. Most people never will even be close to being the best in the world in anything."

Making it even more remarkable was that Lysacek won despite a stress fracture in his left foot.

The new title has opened all kinds of doors for him. He presented the game ball before a Lakers playoff game, and did shows in Asia and across the United States. Go into a grocery store this winter, and you'll see him on soda cans as one of Coca-Cola's Olympic "Six-Pack." He's got more clothes than he knows what to do with, thanks to Ralph Lauren.

"Just boxes, navy blue boxes in every room stacked up," he said, shaking his head in amazement.

But it hasn't changed him - or his attitude. Despite a brand-new Range Rover, he tried to teach training partner Mirai Nagasu how to drive this summer. When he came here to work with Nichol on his new programs, he spent his free time playing tennis with her young sons and being a one-man noise machine at their baseball games.

And as his season begins, the Vancouver Olympics looming larger every day, he's at peace with himself and the weight that world title can carry.

"All I can do is stay on the same path that I'm on," he said. "Which is feel lucky every day to be on the ice, and thankful I have the opportunity to do something I love on a daily basis."