At 7:45 a.m. on a chilly November morning, the best male figure skater in the world is out on the Rockefeller Center rink minutes before a live performance on the Today show. Evan Lysacek drove all night from Lake Placid, where he had won a pre-Olympics competition called Skate America. He slept for two hours, then tugged on a black bodysuit designed by Vera Wang to look sleek rather than silly (even with ebony feathers at the shoulders and wrists) and took the ice. As Stravinsky's "Firebird" plays over the open-air speakers, he runs through his program. Wang is at rink's edge, looking soigné but cheering like a groupie whenever Lysacek lands a triple, which he does every time—effortlessly, one might say, except that the word belies the fact that Lysacek devotes his entire life to making it look that way.
He nails his routine. Wearing a U.S.A. down vest, he stood beside Meredith Vieira moments earlier for his interview, in which he also hit all his marks cleanly. Vieira mentioned the EVAN IS HEAVEN sign spotted at Skate America; Lysacek came back with how much he appreciates having loyal fans. She asked what it would mean for him to win Olympic gold; he said he's just concentrating on making his skating better. Score: 5.9, with a tenth of a point off only for visible exhaustion. Lysacek does seem tired, but also like someone who is so used to pushing past weariness that he's barely conscious of it. The modesty, the work ethic, the regular-Joe mien—all perfect. Lysacek is, in some ways, the guy American figure skating has spent decades waiting for.
Camera-ready champions like him come along only rarely, as do opportunities for the sport to burst out of half-empty rinks populated mostly by kids and middle-aged moms in snowflake sweaters. Every four years, the Winter Olympics create the possibility that skaters can enter that Michael Phelpsian mainstream of endorsements and SNL appearances and split-second name recognition. Vancouver might be that moment for Lysacek. Except for one world-class American figure skater who would very much like to be standing a head or two above him on the medal stand, and who, until two years ago, owned Lysacek. His name is Johnny Weir, and he is everything that the sweet, athletic, midwestern, all-American Lysacek is not—an outspoken, glam, sexually ambiguous, artistic renegade. Lysacek's fans think Weir is a brat. Weir's fans think Lysacek is a bore. It's Kris Allen vs. Adam Lambert. On ice. And it's a rivalry—part hype, part reality, and 100 percent publicity tool—that skating is very happy to have.
LYSACEK: "I'm trying to be wholesome!"
It can't be easy for a single 24-year-old in Los Angeles (he practices nearby in El Segundo) to live like a monk, but Lysacek's diligence and concentration border on the uncanny. "I want to know that I haven't left anything on the table," he says. "That there wasn't one night when I should have been doing cardio from eight to 10, but instead I was out with friends. So I live this lifestyle seven days a week, 24 hours a day. When I get home and say, 'Oh, I'm too tired, it's way too late for me to go out, I'm just gonna have my poached salmon and grilled vegetables and go to sleep,' my friends are like, 'Oh, poor guy!' But there's nothing in this world that makes me happier than pulling up to my house barely able to walk up the stairs and knowing that I could not have done one more bit of training that day."
A short while after the Today appearance he goes to IMG, his sports-management firm, to film promo spots for Smucker's Stars on Ice, the tour he'll join after Vancouver. I ask an IMG rep if that's a big deal. "Smaller every year," he says glumly. "This year, probably 40 cities. It used to be 60. Things are tough. But if Vancouver goes the way we hope, this could be a good year." Meaning Lysacek must win the gold. It's that simple. Handsome and lanky—at six feet two he's a full head taller than his competitors—he grew up in a small town outside Chicago loving the NHL's Blackhawks, skating to music from Top Gun, and wanting to be a Power Ranger. He is a Wheaties box waiting to happen. Likable and articulate, he has just enough edge (note the pubeward-pointing lightning-bolt tattoo below his waist) to avoid looking like a robot.