U.S. Figure Skating Championships: Mirai Nagasu takes lead after short program

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2011; 12:00 AM

GREENSBORO, N.C. - This wasn't bad at all, all things considered. After a year in which Mirai Nagasu, in her own words, grew both "sideways and upwards," wore a cast for two months on a fractured foot, and skated "like a chicken" throughout the fall, things went quite smoothly Thursday night at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Once, that is, she remembered that she had to start her short program.

A split-second mental lapse left Nagasu, 17, lunging through a symbolic flower-picking intended to gracefully and gently launch her program. But once she had frenetically yanked the invisible daisy out of the ground, she eased into a strong and elegant performance that put her in position to claim her second U.S. title and fulfill the expectations that have tailed her since she won her first in 2008.

"On the skating magazine, it says [about me] 'Total Package,' " said Nagasu, who has grown five inches in the last three years. "But I believe the title should be, 'Potential to be a full package.' "

Her potential beamed Thursday on a night of fierce competition that left the top three skaters separated by just more than a point. Nagasu tallied 63.35, a mere 0.85 ahead of a rejuvenated Alissa Czisny, who scored 62.50 a month after claiming first place in the prestigious International Skating Union's Grand Prix Final in Beijing.

Reigning U.S. champion Rachael Flatt showed off a short haircut, a month-old short program and a canary yellow dress - all of which riled up the crowd - and claimed third with 62.32 points. She trailed Nagasu by 1.03 points.

"As of right now, I'm very happy to be in third," Flatt said. "It always gets me a little more motivated to get all the points I can in the long program. . . . I am very confident I will do a great program."

Alexandria's Ashley Wagner, the reigning U.S. bronze medalist, stepped out of her opening combination jump, a critical mistake on a night of largely clean and crisp skating, and ended up seventh with 54.63. Silver Spring's Kristine Musademba, 18, finished 13th with 46.94.

"I've come back from 12th to fourth," Wagner said before the final skaters had competed. "Wherever I end up, I'll definitely be able to handle it."

Czisny, 23, produced a redemptive effort a year after a disastrous U.S. championships painfully ended her 2010 Olympic dreams. Despite entering last year's event as the reigning champion, Czisny cracked under the pressure, made a host of major mistakes and finished 10th overall. On Thursday, she skated cleanly and confidently. Her eyes welled with tears as she took in a standing ovation from the crowd.

"It's hard to say what exactly is affecting me differently because I feel like everything is different," Czisny said. "It's a little bit hard because of my memories of last year, but I learned a lot since last year. . . . For me to be able to come back after last year and skate like that was a little bit emotional. It was such a heartbreak for me to end like that."

A stress fracture in Nagasu's foot left her in a cast, and off the ice, from midsummer until early September. Despite having won a U.S.-best fourth place at the Winter Games in Vancouver, B.C., in February, the time off hurt her fitness and nerves. Yet she pulled herself together in recent weeks, and looked cool, mature and prepared in front of an appreciative crowd.

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