DETROIT — With one eye on the Sochi Olympics and the other on the ice beneath her, Ashley Wagner accomplished the chief goal she set for herself at Skate America this weekend.
For a second consecutive day, Wagner nailed the tricky triple-triple combination jump she has worked on so diligently this past year. With it, she claimed silver in the first international Grand Prix event of the season and established herself as a medal contender for the 2014 Winter Olympics, which get underway in February.
Competing last in Sunday’s free skate, two-time world champion Mao Asada of Japan overcame a nasty fall on her opening jump, a triple Axel, to outscore Wagner on both technical and artistic merit in the eyes of the panel of judges.
Asada, 23, won gold by a margin of 10.74 points, finishing with a total score of 204.55 to Wagner’s 193.81.
Claiming bronze was the 14-year-old Russian sprite Elena Radionova (183.95), who also fell on her opening jump — a triple Lutz — but proved herself a radiant performer, spinning and shimmying to the soundtrack of the film “Frida” when she wasn’t reeling off one triple jump after another.
At 5 foot 1, the seemingly weightless Radionova is being hailed as the future of women’s figure skating, having won every international junior event she contested. But under Olympic rules, that future will have to wait. However gifted, she can’t compete at the Sochi Games because she’s too young.
Asada, the 2010 Olympic silver medalist, and Wagner staked as legitimate threats for Olympic medals based on the rigor and artistic elements of their short and free programs here.
Skate America was notably missing the reigning Olympic champion, South Korea’s Kim Yu-na, who has been sidelined several weeks by a foot injury. Also missing was Italy’s Carolina Kostner, the 2012 world champion. Given that, it was impossible to forecast the Olympic field based on what transpired at Joe Louis Arena these last two days.
But of the eight women in Skate America’s field, Wagner, the two-time U.S. champion, stood apart in terms of competitive mettle. She was the one not to take a single tumble over the two days of competition. And she gamely delivered despite ratcheting up the degree of difficulty of both programs from those she performed last year.
“I never want to eat my words,” said Wagner, 22, a West Potomac graduate who narrowly missed the cut for the 2010 Vancouver Games. “When I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it. To say my main goal is to do the triple-triple and come away with two in my program, it feels really good.”
Skate America marked the first time Wagner had competed against Asada in the United States since the 2012 Four Continents Championships, where Wagner won.
Competing in inverse order from their finish in Saturday’s short program, Wagner was the next-to-last skater to take the ice, with her Russian-schooled coach, Georgian-born Rafael Arutunian, with whom she started working in June, looking on.
Under Arutunian, who previously worked with Asada, Wagner has made impressive strides with her jumps and her approach toward them. Before their collaboration, Wagner explained recently, she jumped purely on feeling. Now she jumps with a keener command of technique.
That’s not to say that Sunday’s performance, set to Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” was mechanical.
The difficulty was clearly front-loaded in the four-minute program, with the triple flip-triple toe serving as the opening jump sequence. She stuck it with authority, though was nicked by judges for double-footing a subsequent triple loop and triple toe.
And she stood tall and elegant from there, the emotion of the story told by the music coming through with greater intensity as the program unfolded.
Afterward she conceded that her focus now is on getting the technical part of the sophisticated free skate right.
“I’m hoping as the season goes on I’m able to weave in more of the artistry,” Wagner said. “It’s kind of starting off more the skeleton of the program, and I will keep adding as I get more in shape with the choreography.”
Wagner plans to compete in one more Grand Prix event, the Trophee Eric Bompard in Paris on Nov. 15-17, before the U.S. championships in Boston in early January, after which the 2014 Olympic team will be selected.
Much like Radionova, Asada was hailed as a figure-skating prodigy who may well have dominated the 2006 Olympics but wasn’t old enough to compete, missing the age cutoff by less than three months.
Seated beside the wide-eyed Radionova during the medal-winner’s news conference, Asada said it felt strange to be the elder one. She wished Radionova success and good health going forward.
Note: Earlier Sunday, Russian world champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov won the pairs competition, expanding an already commanding lead on the field with a free skate that included a throw triple loop and throw triple Salchow to finish with a total score of 237.71, which was 29.26 points ahead of their nearest competitor.
The top-finishing Americans were Caydee Denney and John Coughlin (182.43), who ended up fourth, just shy of the medal podium.