Ryan Bradley wants you to laugh at him. "It calms me down," he said, referring to those tense moments when he takes the ice. "If I could carry a sign that says, 'It's okay to laugh,' I would, but I would be disqualified."
In figure skating, where competitors skate two programs for a combined score, both of Bradley's routines reflect his upbeat, positive nature -- his short program is set to "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," while his free skate is a humorous take on Mozart pieces -- and he's banking on their broad appeal. "I'm the epitome of a crowd [pleasing] skater, and how I do is based on how I'm received."
As he prepared for the world championship, Bradley, the reigning U.S. champion, wondered how these programs would go over in Moscow. "When your music is about to start, that's racing through your head, and it's stressful," he said. "The moment I step off the plane in Russia, I'm going to be a nervous wreck."
Music aside, Bradley believes his quadruple jumps will give him the edge he needs."The Russians appreciate the high risk of the quad," he said, citing the tradition of quads among previous Russian champions like Evgeni Plushenko. "The Japanese guys are really axel guys," he added, referring to Japan's Daisuke Takahashi and Nobunari Oda, two of the pre-competition favorites. "They are solid, beautiful skaters who do triple axels." But for Bradley, true champions are the ones who can combine jumps and artistry with personality and showmanship. Mastering these traits is far from easy, especially when figure skating is anything but gentle on the body.
At last year's worlds, Bradley competed with a broken bone in his right foot and finished in 18th place. He underwent surgery in May 2010 and missed the entire fall season. While he's quick to acknowledge the recent tragedies in Japan, which necessitated the shift of the worlds, originally scheduled for March in Tokyo, to April in Moscow, the rescheduling may bolster his chances. "The shining star is that I got five more weeks of training," he said from his base in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he's coached by Tom Zakrajsek. "It's really changed my expectations. ... Every day, I come to the rink and have a great day."
In contrast to Bradley's outgoing personality on the ice, he's happy to bury himself in books during downtime. A passionate reader, Bradley has read a novel a week for the past seven years. "I got a Kindle the moment it was invented, and I am pretty much married to it," he said.
He recently finished Yann Martel's "Life of Pi" and Anne McCaffrey's "Dragonflight," and may read Sara Gruen's "Water for Elephants" during the worlds. But one thing is certain: He's keeping far away from his Harry Potter books. "I read them all seven times," he said, pointing out the superstitious significance of that number in J.K. Rowling's fictional world. "I don't want [an eighth read] to jinx me, so I'll wait until after I leave skating to decide."
Bradley is less drawn to biographies and historical pieces. "I have a hard time reading those things. The whole point of my reading is to escape my life," he said. "I enjoy reading a novel where everything works out and there's closure. Real life doesn't work out that way. Even if a novel doesn't end in a good way, at least it's closure."
Bradley's own career has certainly lacked closure. Now 27, he first arrived on the scene with tremendous promise, winning the junior national title at the 1999 U.S. Figure Skating Championship. But, by his own admission, he never realized that potential. "I kept going on in this little range of decent performances, but in the ultimate spectrum of things, they were failures." At nationals between 2000 and 2010, he earned one silver medal and placed fourth twice. Otherwise, he was consistently "in the middle of the pack."
"Getting through those years was the biggest thing about my career," he said. "I consistently failed when it came to living up to the expectations I set. And that's difficult to swallow." This partially motivated his return to competition following surgery. "I wanted to do nationals to rinse that taste out."
His decision paid off: He earned his first senior-level U.S. title in January, which brought him tears of joy and disbelief as his placement sank in. But now, when he looks ahead, one thought nags at him: "I want to retire instead of quit," he said, drawing a careful distinction between the two words. "That's such a big deal in my brain."
Whichever path Bradley chooses after Moscow, one thing is certain: his quadruple crown of crowd appeal, charisma, character and quad jumps will be a hard combination to find in the rest of the field. Here's hoping Bradley keeps us laughing all the way to Sochi in 2014.