OMAHA — Less than two months after a bruising fall and just days removed from a bout with food poisoning, Alexandria’s Ashley Wagner seized the lead at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Thursday after she delivered a near spotless short program that minimized risk and highlighted grace.
Seeking to become the first woman to win back-to-back U.S. Championships since Michelle Kwan in 2005, Wagner, 21, opened with a triple flip into a double toe loop. Her two minute 40-second performance, set to music from the “Red Violin” soundtrack, included elegant combination spins and earned the competition’s highest marks for its execution, choreography and interpretation.
It was precisely the balance Wagner and her veteran coach, John Nicks, had sought to strike in the run-up to the world championships in March and her ultimate goal, the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, after she just missed the cut for the 2010 Vancouver Games.
“I did exactly what I came here to do,” said Wagner, who chose not to attempt a high-stakes triple-triple combination but earned a top score of 67.57 nonetheless. “I went out and skated solid. And I felt like I really owned every single jump, spin and element that I had in that program.”
Chicago’s Agnes Zawadzki, the bronze medalist at last year’s U.S. Championships, fell while attempting a fairly routine double axel yet placed second (65.31) by virtue of the rigor of her program, which opened with a triple Lutz and followed with a triple toe-triple toe combination.
But in many ways, the evening belonged to third-place finisher Mirai Nagasu of Arcadia, Calif.
Five years ago, Nagasu was a pocket-sized prodigy. Just 4-feet-11 and 78 pounds, she was hailed as the future of American figure-skating upon winning the 2008 U.S. Championships at age 14, just one year after claiming the nation’s junior title.
But after finishing fourth at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the 16-year-old Nagasu confronted the inevitable growth spurt of adolescence, a stress fracture and a coaching change. And overnight, skating’s darling was yesterday’s news.
Thursday at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center, Nagasu re-introduced herself to the sport with a short program that showcased her athleticism and recaptured the joy she once took in skating.
“I feel like I’ve been that little girl from ages ago who wanted to go to the Olympics and medal,” said Nagasu, 19, who now stands 5-4. “I feel like I’ve been trying to regain that memory. Sometimes it’s hard, but it has been a great journey.”
Spectators threw heart-shaped boxes of chocolates after her routine, which opened with a triple toe-triple toe combination, followed by a triple loop, and cheered when her score of 64.39 was posted.
Nagasu had an up-and-down season in 2012. She finished seventh at the U.S. Championships after claiming bronze in 2011 and silver in 2010. Thursday, she acknowledged that she had considered quitting, as many athletes do when their hard work no longer translates to results.
Instead she changed coaches, worked on her fitness, started focusing more on improving her skating than stressing over her scores and went back to her former choreographer. Together, they decided to return to the strategy Nagasu employed as a young competitor — skating to music that was upbeat for her short program, then following with a classical piece for her long.
By dint of the draw, she faced the unenviable task of skating second Thursday in the field of 20. But her spirits sparkled like her bright pink, sequined dress as she performed to Benny Goodman’s “Downhill Special.”
“I do have to say I enjoy the attention on me when it comes to figure skating,” Nagasu confessed afterward.
The 2012 U.S. junior champion, Gracie Gold of Chicago, had been expected to make a major splash in her first senior competition on home soil. Known for her jumping ability and trademark triple Lutz with both hands overhead, Gold under-rotated and fell on the second jump of her opening sequence, a triple flip into a triple toe loop. The fall resulted in the standard 1.00 deduction, and her marks for execution and interpretation were modest. She finished ninth (54.08).
Harvard freshman Christina Gao of Cincinnati finished fifth (58.74). Gao landed her first two jump sequences in an elegant program but stumbled during the transition from one spin to another.
The women’s competition concludes Saturday with the long program. The men’s competition gets under way Friday with the short program. Jeremy Abbott is seeking his fourth U.S. Championship in a field that lacks reigning Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek, who’s recovering from surgery in November to repair a hernia.
Skating note: Marissa Castelli of Cranston, R.I., and Simon Shnapir of Sudbury, Mass., led the pairs competition following Thursday’s short program with 62.27 points. Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay were second (53.19), followed by Alexa Scimeca and Christopher Knierim (52.79).