OMAHA — It wasn’t the performance Ashley Wagner had hoped to stage en route to winning a second consecutive U.S. Figure Skating Championships. And to some in the crowd at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center, they weren’t the marks that a free skate program marred by two falls necessarily deserved.
But Alexandria’s Wagner waltzed off with the spoils Saturday, becoming the first woman to win back-to-back U.S. Championships since Michelle Kwan in 2005, despite being overshadowed by a 17-year-old barely out of the junior ranks who electrified the arena with a technically rigorous program that sparkled with talent and resolve.
Gracie Gold had nothing to lose after falling during Thursday’s short program and finishing a disappointing ninth. So she poured herself into a free skate Saturday that included seven triple jumps — each delivered with brio and style. And she was rewarded with the second-highest marks for a free skate in the U.S. Championships since the current scoring system was introduced eight years ago.
Her eye-popping score of 132.49, nearly 20 points higher than any skater to that point, vaulted her from ninth to first and appeared to rattle every skater who followed. One by one, the women who had outperformed Gold in the short program stumbled or fell, preserving the 17-year-old’s unlikely lead.
Wagner was the next-to-last competitor to perform.
Skating to “Samson and Delilah” in a flowing gold dress, Wagner opened beautifully but fell twice during the second half of the four-minute program, as she had in practice Wednesday. She did six triple jumps in all, but fell on two.
She needed a score of 119.01 to overtake Gold, and based on the marks to that point, it seemed unlikely. But judges awarded her that and more, 121.27, and Wagner buried her face in her hands the moment it was announced.
“I don’t think anyone could have prepared me for how difficult this national championship was going to be,” said Wagner, a West Potomac graduate, who finished with 188.84 points to Gold’s 186.57. “All things considered, I’m very proud of what I achieved.”
With it, Wagner secured a spot at the world championships. As the 2013 U.S. silver medalist, Gold will almost certainly join her. U.S. Skating officials have latitude in the selections, which will be announced Sunday.
Agnes Zawadzki finished third (179.63).
Wagner congratulated Gold on what she called a “lights out” performance. Asked about the scoring, she said she felt it was “fairly accurate.”
“I definitely lucked out at this competition,” Wagner said. “I think my past performance helped me at this competition. It only pushes me more to make sure I have the rest of the season be nice and solid.”
In all likelihood, Gold will be challenging her at every turn, spin and jump — her performance Saturday suggesting that she has the makings of figure-skating’s next star. Instead of sulking over her botched short program, Gold wowed the crowd with her seven triple jumps, then got fans clapping along during her step sequence and closed with taut, powerful spins. Amid thunderous applause and squeals, she pumped her fist twice and exulted “Yes! Yes!”
“I stopped focusing on what was around me — the crowd, the screaming, the other skaters, the pressure, the expectations,” Gold said. “I let it all go. I just pictured myself at my rink in Chicago and even the practices here — how I would skate if I was practicing — just the feel of the knees, the feel of the ice, one thing at a time. I didn’t get over my head with thoughts or expectations; I just went out there and skated like I know how to skate.”
Wagner showed mettle, as well, competing less than two months after injuring her back and a hip during a brutal fall in a Grand Prix final at the Olympic rink in Sochi, Russia. She also had food poisoning last week.
Earlier Saturday, 2010 Olympic silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White affirmed their status as front-runners for gold in Sochi with a sterling free skate that crushed all American comers. With it, they won their fifth U.S. Championship with a total score of 197.44, putting more than 21 points distance between themselves and silver-medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates (175.91). Siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani took bronze (174.21).
In the pairs competition, Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir won their first pairs gold at the U.S. Championships despite a free skate that was riddled with hiccups. Their score: 180.61.
The United States hasn’t won an Olympic medal in pairs skating since 1988. And the 2014 Sochi Games aren’t likely to snap that quarter-century drought.
The country’s strongest team, 2012 U.S. Champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, is currently sidelined as Coughlin recovers from surgery on his left hip. Castelli and Schnapir are assured of competing at the upcoming world championships, as Saturday’s gold medalists. The second U.S. pairs team is unsettled, given Coughlin’s uncertain status. If he and Denney aren’t ready, the spot would likely go to Saturday’s silver medalists Alexa Scimeca and Christopher Knierim (172.75). Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay took bronze (172.02).