Jeremy Abbott is a procrastinator.
He thrives under deadlines, so maybe this looming end date will bring out his best. The three-time U.S. figure skating champion plans to retire at the end of this season.
Abbott, 28, has mostly struggled since winning his third title two years ago, and in that time he has overhauled his training program. But the men's field is wide open at this week's U.S. championships in Boston, with reigning Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek sidelined by injury. And none of his competition can lean on anything close to Abbott's history of success at nationals.
"I always kind of manage to take a step up before this event," Abbott said Wednesday, a day before the championships open with the pairs and women's short programs.
Major international competitions have long vexed the Coloradoan, who finished a disappointing ninth at the 2010 Olympics. But not nationals, which he understandably calls "my favorite event all season."
"There's just such an energy here that you don't feel at any other event, international or otherwise," said Abbott, who trains in the Detroit area.
He got a little choked up halfway through his practice session Wednesday, hit by the knowledge this will his last U.S. championships. When the short program starts Friday, Abbott intends to take a businesslike approach to trying to make the Olympic team. He's not looking for perfection.
"I don't think I have to skate this amazing, otherworldly, phenomenal program like I have done to win my past three titles," he said.
Part of that mindset is the lack of experience in the men's field, which means an impeccable performance probably won't be needed to clinch one of the two Olympic spots. But another reason he's not seeking a magical moment, he said in a near-whisper, is "I need that for Sochi."
His coach, Yuka Sato, said that in the past Abbott struggled to peak twice in the same season. He'd dazzle at U.S. championships but couldn't rediscover that form for worlds or the Olympics.
"You're at the 100 percent stage and then you have to come back down," she said, "and then have the recovery and the adjusting so you can be at that high place for another competition."
So Abbott's daily routine now seeks to simulate those highs and lows to prepare him for what he hopes is a transition from Boston to Sochi.
He has worked with a sports psychologist and revamped his off-ice training.
"I've never been in such good shape in my life, and I've never worked as hard as I've worked this season," Abbott said. "I've put in all the work. I haven't cut any corners."
The fall season ended with an encouraging sign, when a strong free skate at NHK Trophy in early November lifted him from seventh to third. But he knows his body can't weather the demands of the sport much longer. Younger skaters can land quadruple jump after quadruple jump with no problem.
Abbott does have a quad in his short program and another in his free skate, and that's "my ceiling."
"I just physically hurt," he said. "And I ache and I'm sore and I'm tired and I'm old."
Abbott laughed as he said that. A title this week to go with his gold medals in 2009, '10 and '12 would make him the 11th man to win at least four U.S. championships, a list that includes Dick Button, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano and Todd Eldredge. This time, he would be thrilled with a runner-up finish because it means a shot at Olympic redemption.
"I have a very small window," he said, "and I want to seize the moment and then walk away with what I have."