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Ashley Wagner enters Friday’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships free skate on thin ice

Ashley Wagner is fifth entering Friday’s free skate.
Ashley Wagner is fifth entering Friday’s free skate. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

SAN JOSE — Seconds after she drew No. 18 out of a red bag held by a U.S. Figure Skating official Wednesday night, Ashley Wagner raised her arms above her head as if acknowledging an adoring crowd of thousands instead of a room full of her fellow competitors.

The 26-year-old smiled briefly at her mock theatrics before reclaiming her seat near the back of the room, looking entirely at ease. That 18 meant Wagner would skate 18th of the 22 skaters who will compete in Friday evening's women's free skate, an event that probably will determine which three women make the Olympic team. Ideally, Wagner would have been skating 20th, 21st or 22nd since that would mean she finished in the top three in Wednesday's short program.

As it happened, those spots went to short-program star Bradie Tennell, 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu and 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen, who finished Wednesday's short program in the top three spots. Wagner's short program, which included a sloppy jump and a few other small mistakes, left her fifth in the competition that will decide whether she gets one more Olympic chance.

But as she joked at the draw, no one seemed less concerned about her position than Wagner, who has been outspoken about her intentions to make the U.S. Olympic team and has endured a decade of pressure similar to what she will face Friday night.

Ashley Wagner, in final shot at Olympic figure skating medal, is calling her shots

Should she make the podium, Wagner probably will earn a spot on the Olympic team in what is almost certainly her final shot to do so. If she doesn't, she will be at the mercy of U.S. Figure Skating officials, who chose her for the team in 2014 despite a disappointing performance at nationals.

This time, the competition may be more formidable. Tennell conjured magic Wednesday night, captivating a crowd hungry for a clear-cut favorite with a near-perfect program that showcased her remarkably consistent jumping abilities and earned the highest short-program score any woman has received at the U.S. championships. But spots on the podium are not earned in the short program, and the grueling, more scrutinized free skate will pose a challenge to the emerging 19-year-old.

Nagasu finished second in the short program despite missing her much-heralded triple axel and in so doing demonstrated the advantage that jump gives her. A missed triple axel earned her more technical points than Tennell's perfectly executed double axel, a quirk of scoring that recognizes the relative difficulty of the jumps. Nagasu is only the second American woman to land that jump in international competition, and the last one did so more than 25 years ago.

Chen, meanwhile, continued her habit of rising to big occasions by turning in her most promising short program of what had been an up-and-down season. Chen won last year's U.S. championships, a competition that is among the criteria listed for consideration by those choosing the Olympic team. Should she earn a spot on the podium with a strong free skate, Chen will be hard to leave off the Olympic team. Angela Wang enters Friday night's free skate as an unexpected contender in fourth place. Mariah Bell is also within striking distance.

But as they have been for nearly four years now, all eyes will be on Wagner, a sentimental favorite. She will be skating a revamped version of the "La La Land" free skate she used months ago, then abandoned, then returned to last month. She has not skated that program in competition but did not seem particularly concerned about that Wednesday night. The most experienced woman in the field knows she holds her Olympic future in her hands and is comfortable with the notion.

Note: As expected, Chris Knierim and Alexa Scimeca-Knierim lead after the pairs short program. The married couple are the clear favorites to take the United States' one Olympic spot but were not perfect in a short program that included a slip on their side-by-side triple Salchow and a near-fall in the less-troublesome transition into their throw. Nevertheless, given that this time last year Scimeca Knierim was recovering from abdominal surgery, the Knierims looked strong and ready to embrace their role as favorites.

Their nearest competition came not from Brandon Frazier and Haven Denney, as most expected, but rather from Danny O'Shea and Tanya Kayne, whose score of 68.93 leaves them in second ahead of Saturday's free skate.

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