PARK CITY, Utah -- There were only a few dozen fans in the stands, and the lower-level figure skating competition would have little or no impact on this all-important Olympic season. Yet as Evan Lysacek watched from hundreds of miles away, ice on his injured hip, he felt that old rush of adrenaline.
And more than a little bit of frustration.
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"The feeling I had was, `God, I have to get back,"' Lysacek said. "Watching skating competitions still gives me that same fire and desire. That's what I said to (longtime coach Frank Carroll) when he asked, `Evan are you sure you want to put yourself through this?' I really want to. And if the day comes where I don't want to, I will not be shy and I'll say, `I don't want to do it anymore!'
"But right now, I still really do. It's what I love. Nothing would make me happier, especially after all of this, than representing the United States in Sochi."
If he does, it could be the greatest feat of the reigning Olympic champion's career.
The Sochi Olympics are less than four months away, and Lysacek still hasn't competed since winning gold in Vancouver. After a torn abdominal muscle derailed his comeback last season, he had planned to make his return at that lower-level competition, last month's International Figure Skating Classic, before headlining the men's field next week at Skate America.
But a violent fall on a quadruple jump Aug. 21 left him with a torn labrum in his left hip, as well as another abdominal tear. It's too soon to say when he'll return to the ice for training, let alone competition, and Lysacek knows the clock is working against him.
"I'm extremely disappointed he's not going to be there. He's an idol of mine and I'm still looking forward to the moment when I can step out on the ice with him," current U.S. champion Max Aaron said. "But his health comes first.
"I wish him the best in healing fast."
When Lysacek won gold in Vancouver, few expected him to stick around long enough even to consider Sochi. Figure skating's Olympic champions tend to make quick exits -- Russia's Evgeny Plushenko is the only singles gold medalist in 20 years to attempt to defend his title -- and being the first American man to claim gold in 22 years brought Lysacek fortune and fame. He appeared on "Dancing With the Stars," finishing as the runner-up, and was in demand for appearances and endorsements.
But medals and titles, to say nothing of the riches that come with them, have never been what's driven Lysacek. He's a gym rat, and the further he walked away from the lifestyle of a competitive athlete, the more he craved it.
"That's how I knew I'm eventually going to end up back in competition," Lysacek said during a one-on-one interview at the U.S. Olympic Committee's media summit last week. "It was just a matter of time."
First, though, he had to put Vancouver behind him.
While every Olympic champion likes to say the gold medal didn't change them, it's impossible for it not to leave a mark. The Winter and Summer Games come around once every four years, respectively, and it's an infinitesimally small number of athletes who even get there. Medalists are an even rarer subset, with Olympic champions the most select group of all.
But Olympic medals, even gold ones, guarantee you nothing.
"It's hard when the Olympics are just so huge and it's so satisfying to get that medal to let it go," Lysacek said. "Sport has no room for arrogance or ego at all. You are completely exposed when you get out there to compete. That's something I wanted to own up to before I actually had to get out there. So slowly I started not wearing as much Olympic apparel to practice and not wearing my Olympic ring anymore and not really bringing my medal to most appearances like I used to.
"Letting that be in the past and wanting to move forward."
And make no mistake, returning to the ice was a step forward.
Some athletes keep coming back to their sport -- or never leave in the first place -- because they don't know what else to do, and Lysacek acknowledges he isn't sure what career he'll pursue once he is finished skating. (He hasn't ruled out competing beyond Sochi, either.) Oh, he's dabbled in fashion and entertainment and business, but nothing has captivated him quite like being an athlete.
It's the certainty skating brings to his life, rather than the uncertainty of what comes after, that keeps drawing him to the ice.
"It's everything," said Lysacek, who also won the world title in 2009. "Definitely the discipline and the structure of it. Knowing I have a job to do every day. It's very clear and concise what that job is, and I know if I haven't fulfilled those expectations that I had of myself. Or if I have, then I feel really good about myself.
"At some point, I have to enter into the real world and accept that there's a lot more gray area, where you're a little unclear if it's been a good day or a bad day," he added. "But there's something about the exactitude of being an athlete and being able to judge your day and your accomplishment and achievement that makes it worthwhile."
And nothing -- not the injuries, the pain or the setbacks -- will ever diminish that.
"It's been very trying and very frustrating, and this is just yet another frustration to add to it," he said. "But I'm remaining optimistic about the Olympics and getting there."