But the women's short program became an unexpected coronation as 19-year-old Bradie Tennell announced herself as a legitimate contender for one of three spots on the Olympic team with a stunning short program that earned the highest score in women's nationals history. That program left her leading the field heading into Friday night's decisive and more highly weighted free skate.
Wagner's program included an under-rotated triple-toe loop among other small mistakes, and her usual energetic artistry was not enough to overcome them. She stands in fifth after the short program, a familiar position for the most experienced skater in the ladies' field.
Nagasu finished second despite missing that triple axel. Last year's U.S. bronze medalist, Mariah Bell, missed one of her three jumps but kept herself in the Olympic conversation with an otherwise technically sound and energetic showing.
Last year's U.S. champion, Karen Chen, finished third with her best short program of an up-and-down season. But in a season defined by inconsistency across the women's board, one that left the sport begging for someone to separate herself ahead of the Olympics, Tennell made the loudest argument Wednesday night.
"My mind-set about the Olympics has never changed," Tennell said after her impressive skate. "It's always been in the back of my mind, but I don't focus on it, because that can be overwhelming."
She might soon have to focus on it anyway. Tennell was not considered a contender before she bested Wagner and Chen by winning bronze at Skate America this season. A remarkably consistent jumper, Tennell compiled the highest score of any American woman in this season's Grand Prix series at that competition, peaking just in time to enter the U.S. championships as a sudden contender for a trip to PyeongChang.
Skating to a song from a popular Korean film written by a Korean composer, Tennell earned a standing ovation with masterfully executed jumps and aggressive, tight spins. Tennell's aggressive step sequences — less polished than those of Wagner and others but effective nonetheless — seemed to link her less heralded past with her suddenly prominent immediate future. Tennell entered this week as a skater to watch. She left Wednesday's short program as a promising bet.
Tennell had been considered a future star since she won the junior title at the 2015 U.S. championships, but her rise was slowed by injuries and the inconsistency that so often follows them. She has, it seems, resumed that rise. Tennell's short program earned a score of 73.79, the highest of her career, higher than Wagner, Nagasu, Chen, Bell and others have ever compiled.
Nagasu nearly matched her. Earlier this season, the 24-year-old joined Tonya Harding as the only other American woman to land a triple axel in international competition. Entering this competition, that triple axel, in itself, constituted a compelling argument for a spot on the Olympic team. She hit all but one of the triple axels she attempted in practice this week, looking sure and serene in her attempts.
But her nerves arrived just in time for warmups, when she fell while attempting a triple axel moments before her short program. Then, seconds into a performance that was supposed to be defined by that jump, Nagasu missed it. She did not fall, but she did stumble, a mistake that looked worse to the eye than it did in the scoring.
Triple axels are worth a handful more points than any of the jumps her competitors tried, more than Tennell's perfectly executed double axel, and Nagasu ended up with a score of 73.09 despite the trouble. That score was three-tenths of a point shy of her career short program best.
"Today I over-rotated my triple axel a little bit, but I know I'm very capable of it," Nagasu said. "I can't wait to pull it out for the long [program]."
Wagner's performance betrayed nerves, too. While a flurry of injury and off-ice issues combined to undermine her status as the favorite this week, Wagner skated like a woman experiencing favorite-level pressure. She looked tight throughout, more shackled on her jumps than free, though she did display her usual knack for drawing in the crowd with endless artistry.
The 26-year-old smiled when she saw her score of 65.94, a polite reaction to what some would consider a disappointing number, though Wagner has wrestled with that short program all season. Her Olympic future could depend on her free skate, a recently tweaked program untested in competition. Wagner uses her short programs to put herself in position to pounce in the free skate. Her fate was always going to be determined Friday night.
In theory, Tennell's Olympic future depends on Friday's free skate, too. The short program is one component of several that enters the selection process. The free skate is a more significant component. But if this week's championships amounted to a search for a favorite in a field reluctant to yield one this season, U.S. Figure Skating may have just found one.
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