By Amy Shipley
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.
"I feel good about how I skated, especially after two months off with an injury," she said. "It was a big blow to my confidence."
Her confidence might have been shaken. Her skating wasn't, at least not Thursday. Nagasu hit a triple Lutz-triple toe loop, a trip flip and double Axel.
"I was a little nervous that I hadn't worked as hard as I could have," Nagasu said. But I thought, "I have to do the jumps anyway; why not just go out and land them and do my best?"
In the pairs competition earlier, Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin used a sultry tango to take the lead with 64.30 points, just ahead of last year's U.S. silver medalists, Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig (62.87) and 2008-09 champion Rockne Brubaker, who scored 58.10 in his debut with new partner Mary Beth Marley, who is 15.
Brubaker, who split with Keauna McLaughlin after their crushing fifth-place finish at last year's championships, teamed up with Marley in August. Last year's U.S. champions, Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett, stood in fourth place with 57.79.
Yankowskas's and Coughlin's effort represented a breakthrough that seemed to be bubbling throughout the fall and winter international season. After finishing fourth at the NHK Trophy in Japan in October, the pair claimed their first major international medal - the bronze - at the Cup of China. Their fall season led a U.S. pairs contingent that has been struggling for more than two decades to regain international prominence.
"The short program went by really fast," Coughlin said. "It felt like another day at the office for us . . . It was very gratifying to have it come together like that."
Yet it was not completely expected. After Coughlin's mother died last February at age 48 after a long illness, he and Yankowskas threw themselves so fully into a tribute through their long program to "Ave Maria" that both said they all but neglected their short.
And then they changed it completely. Their coach, Dalilah Sappenfield, awakened them at 6 a.m. one morning to tell them she "wasn't feeling it" with their program to the Doctor Zhivago soundtrack. She wanted a tango.
"The short was kind of an afterthought for us," Coughlin said. "I think we were very careful [Thursday] in the short program not to overlook it. I think we're looking forward to performing the long program - more for us than anybody else or the results. It means a lot to us."
Sappenfield convinced Coughlin performing to Ave Maria in honor of his mother, who converted to Catholicism, would be "very therapeutic," and she was right.
"The feelings we are portraying are very, very genuine," he said. "No matter what happens on Saturday, we're going to enjoy this for us."