Given the sport's physical demands, even the best U.S. figure skaters don't make it to three Olympics. And those who compete in more than one Games rarely leave on their terms, with hips and knees intact.
After a series of serious injuries, including a torn labrum in his left hip, 2010 Olympic champion Evan Lysacek ended his dream of competing in his third Games on Tuesday. Lysacek said the pain in recent months was excruciating. If he continued training, he would risk serious and permanent damage, his doctors told him. "With a warning like that, I felt I had no choice," Lysacek said.
Over the last 86 years, only two American men have skated in three Olympic singles competitions (Brian Boitano, 1984, '88, '94, and Todd Eldredge, 1992, '98, '02).
There are numerous repeat Olympians likely headed to Sochi — most notably snowboarders Shaun White and Kelly Clark, skiers Ted Ligety, Bode Miller, Julia Mancuso and Lindsey Vonn, bobsledder Steven Holcomb and speedskater Shani Davis. On the U.S. figure skating team, there isn't expected to be any returning Olympic singles skater in Sochi.
Boitano said the mental demands are as challenging as the physical ones for a figure skater. "It's the pressure to get one medal," he said. "There's not a medal for the short program, the long program and the combined. It's just one gold medal."
In contrast, an Alpine skier can qualify in downhill, super-G and perhaps a third discipline. Boitano also said because the free skate is 41/2 minutes, longer than most races, much can go wrong. Since it's not a team sport, like hockey, if an athlete has a bad game, he can't pass a triple axel to a teammate.
For casual fans, figure skating might seem like ballet on ice, sprinkled with sequins, jumps and perhaps a little Carmen or Swan Lake. But the wear and tear on the body is immense. As a result, the sport often favors the young.
Even so, the sport is littered with Olympic or world champions who left the sport as teens because of serious injury. At 16, Kimmie Meissner competed in the 2006 Olympics, finishing sixth. Later that year, she won the world championships. Becasue of knee and hip injuries, she never made it to another Olympics.
At 15, Tara Lipinski won Olympic gold in 1998, her only Games. A series of hip injuries, including a torn labrum, ended her competitive career.
"Skaters are leaving the sport and getting hip and knee replacements," Boitano said. "There are a lot more serious injuries compared to when I competed. It's sad. We're losing a lot of young skaters."
Lysacek, 28, often refers to figure skating as an extreme sport. "It's so grueling and it's so dangerous, and I think that's what people don't understand about it, how dangerous it really is," he said.
Last year, when discussing his plans to return to the Olympics, after not competing since winning gold in Vancouver, Lysacek said he'd put his sport up against any other in terms of difficulty and danger. "The truth is the skills and tricks that the best guys in the world are doing are the most extreme tricks of any sport," he said. "Am I wrong — 1,440 degrees of rotation is a quad. What other sport does that? Maybe a few divers did that in London off a three-story dive, but we're doing it on two feet." On ice.
Discipline, precision and the sacrifice required also distinguish his sport, though athletes in other sports likely would say the same. "What's the most difficult about the sport ... is that you have to deliver under pressure. Right now, " Lysacek said Tuesday. "It takes super-human strength, mentally and physically, to deliver your best for almost five minutes of your life under the most pressure a human being can imagine."
His plan is to heal, with further surgery a possibility. Any decision on whether to be in Sochi, representing his sponsors or doing TV work, has not been made. "I am still processing what's going on right now with my health. That devastation will take quite a bit of time to get over mentally and physically," Lysacek said.
Still, he resolves to skate again, in some capacity. "I'm fortunate I've had a great career," he said. "I'd like for it to end on a really positive note."
Still, he resolves to skate again, in some capacity. "I don't want that to be my last memories on the ice," he said. "I'm fortunate I've had a great career. I'd like for it to end on a really positive note."