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.
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.
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, both Dornbush, who won the Junior Grand Prix final last month, and Miner, who turned 20 on Monday, were picked by U.S. Figure Skating officials 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 with 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' 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.' "
Meanwhile, the last time Alissa Czisny went to the world championships, she was so awful she cost the United States a third spot at the Vancouver Olympics last year.
That, however, was two years ago, an eternity in figure skating. Especially when considering the kind of transformation Czisny has made.
Czisny's mercurial ways were a thing of the past in winning her second U.S. title Saturday night, keeping her poise while previous champions Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu faltered. But Czisny knows there are still some who doubt her, and will until she shows she can do well at worlds.
"This whole season is me as a new skater," Czisny said. "I've been able to be a lot more consistent in my competitions this season, doing what I have to do when I have to do it, and I plan to do the same thing at worlds."
The U.S. will have only two spots at worlds for a third straight year, and will be counting on Czisny to reverse that disappointing trend. Czisny and Flatt have to finish with a combined placement of 13th or better (fifth and eighth, for example) to get a third spot for 2012.
"I'd love to peak at the world championships," Flatt said. "But especially with my programs this year, I think I've got a good chance for a great showing."