DETROIT — At the Southern California rink where Ashley Wagner trains, she’s the skater the wee ones look up to — the two-time U.S. champion whose triple loops and layback spins paint a picture of the competitor they want to be.
It’s only at international competitions that the 22-year-old Wagner is confronted with the standard she aspires to reach.
This weekend at Skate America, the first event of the Grand Prix season, that measuring stick is two-time world champion Mao Asada. And in Saturday’s short program, Wagner proved herself a worthy contender, nailing the difficult triple-triple jump combination that currently distinguishes credible Olympic medal contenders from those with mere pipe dreams.
It was the first time Wagner had gotten full credit from judges for her triple flip-triple toe loop combination in a short program. And the moment she landed it, her showmanship soared, carrying her through the remainder of a program that earned a personal best 69.26 points — good enough for second place heading into Sunday’s decisive free skate.
“I was actually pretty terrified because it was a high-risk element for me,” said Wagner, a West Potomac High graduate. “But before I went out there, [Coach Rafael Arutunian] told me go do it: ‘Skate the triple-toe like you know how to.’ And I just kind of turned the rest off and went into auto-pilot.”
Asada, skating last among the 10 competitors, overtook Wagner for first place (73.18 points) with a program highlighted by three triple jumps, including a beautiful triple Axel at the outset, an elegant flying camel spin and intricate footwork.
Making a sparkling impression in her debut on the senior Grand Prix series was 14-year-old Elena Radionova, the 2013 world junior champion. Unencumbered by nerves or gravity, the pocket-sized Russian opened with a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination and sped through a program that showed off the flexibility and stamina of her 5-foot-1 frame.
Earning the second-highest technical marks but lacking the artistry of the 23-year-old Asada or Wagner, Radionova finished third with 67.01 points. In a giggly news conference afterward, she proclaimed herself quite pleased with her performance, adding in remarks relayed by an interpreter: “Tomorrow, I will show you my free skate!”
Whether because of the downtrodden economy in this bankrupt city, where the unemployment rate is 16 percent, or because of the joyful diversion of the Detroit Tigers’ pennant run, attendance was sparse for a second consecutive day, with Joe Louis Arena less than half-full.
Skate America, which concludes with Sunday’s women’s free skate, plays no direct role in determining who qualifies for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. But that’s the end game in the back of nearly all competitors’ minds as they polish the programs they hope to stage at the upcoming Winter Games.
Radionova is a notable exception; at 14, she’s too young to meet the Olympics’ age requirement.
Based on last season’s results, the United States can send three women’s singles skaters to Sochi. Wagner, who narrowly missed the cut for the 2010 Vancouver Games, is the highest-ranked American. Her nearest competitor, Gracie Gold, isn’t competing at Skate America.
But Wagner insists she wants to do more than simply qualify for the Olympics; she wants to contend for a medal. To do so, she’ll have to hike the difficulty of her programs — by adding and delivering a triple-triple.
That’s what drives her every practice and competition in the run-up to Sochi, where reigning Olympic champion Kim Yu-na of South Korea is expected to execute the triple-triple with hallmark grace. No less is expected of Asada, relegated to silver at the 2010 Vancouver Games by Kim’s near flawless performance, which shattered the record for high marks.
Since then, Asada, who for years had no peer as a jumper, has completely reworked the technical foundation of her jumps. The process set her back for a while, partly explaining her bronze-medal placement at the world championships in March, with Kim again claiming gold. Here in Detroit, Asada appears to have reclaimed her form.
Kim isn’t competing, sidelined by a foot injury.
Determined to narrow the competitive gap, Wagner plans to reprise her triple-triple in Sunday’s long program.
“She has no other choice,” said Arutunian, who previously worked with Asada. “It’s just the lowest limit for today. It’s lowest limit; you cannot go lower than that” and contend for an Olympic medal.
Notes: Russia’s Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov took a commanding lead following Saturday’s pairs short program (85.03 points). Their nearest challengers were more than 11 points back. Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir were the high-scoring Americans (62.56) in fifth.
Heading into Saturday’s men’s long free skate, 18-year-old American Jason Brown is in second place. Fellow American Jeremy Rippon is in third, while U.S. champion Max Aaron, among those who fell on a quad attempt, is in sixth.