GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Ryan Bradley's free skate was flawed, uncharacteristically conservative and, frankly, a little disappointing.
Not that Bradley cares. A national title is a national title, regardless of how you get it.
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Boosted by his big lead from the short program and meltdowns by the guys who'd been right behind him, Bradley won his first crown at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Sunday afternoon. He finished fourth in the free skate, but it was enough to edge up-and-comers Richard Dornbush and Ross Miner.
"Today was a really hard program," Bradley said. "Nothing was pretty. It was probably the ugliest national championship program (by a winner) ever, and I love it because of it. Because I had to be gritty."
Bradley finished with 231.90 points. Dornbush, who was so out of the mix when the day began he didn't even skate in the last group, won the free skate and finished with 225.56 overall. Miner jumped to third after being sixth in the short program.
Two-time defending champion Jeremy Abbott crumbled on yet another big stage, dropping to fourth with a poor free skate and costing himself a spot on the world championships team.
"I'm extremely disappointed," Abbott said. "It's hard."
Despite their youth, U.S. Figure Skating officials picked both Dornbush, who won the JUNIOR Grand Prix final last month, and Miner, who turned 20 on Monday, to join Bradley at worlds in Tokyo in March. Abbott's history on the world stage is so checkered it makes sense to give young skaters exposure when the clock on the Sochi Olympics already ticking.
It's safe to say, though, that the powerful Japanese and Canada's Patrick Chan probably won't lose any sleep over the U.S. lineup.
"Every time someone dropped below us, I'd shake Ross's hand," Dornbush said. "We were both pretty excited to skate great programs. That was pretty much 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, the 27-year-old 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.
But he tossed a triple toe on his second triple axel, and then did a triple-double-double combination that helped to pad his point total.
"The moment I hit that (triple axel combination) I remember thinking, `Oh wow, I might stay on the podium.' Maybe I'd snag third," 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."
Oh, for those keeping track, Bradley did another back flip as he left the ice.
"A lot of it has to do with how I'm feeling on a day-to-day basis. If I feel healthy, if I feel relevant, then I don't see why I shouldn't compete," he said. "Last year was heartbreaking. I put my entire soul into training last year to come up six points short. That was devastating. I'm a different person this entire year because of it.
"But you've got these kids coming out of nowhere, throwing down clean longs like it's nothing."
Dornbush had never medaled at nationals at any level, and worlds will 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.
"I was talking to Ross earlier, and we were talking about how we made it through almost the entire program before it hit us that we'd done it," Dornbush said. "That's one of the most exciting moments you can have. ... After I skated, it was such a great program and I was just happy I could skate it that way. Placing that well, it was nowhere near the top of my mind."
Miner, the 2009 U.S. junior champion, was supposed to compete as a senior last year. But he sprained his ankle during training about three weeks before, and had to withdraw. He wound up being off the ice for four months.
"Coming here, I was so excited to be out on ice and getting the chance to compete," he said. "I was off the ice for four months, a long time. It was really, really awesome just to compete here."