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U.S. ladies get double Axel jitters in Salt Lake City

Gold holds narrow lead over Zawadzki heading into free skate
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Gracie Gold found herself in first place after amassing 58.49 points in the short program. -Jay Adeff

Maybe it was something in the water, or the 4,300-foot altitude.

Or maybe that thing about Friday the 13th isn't just an old wives' tale.

Whatever it was during the ladies short at the 2013 U.S. International Figure Skating Championships in Salt Lake City, a jump sometimes taken for granted by elite skaters -- the double Axel -- gave a quartet of U.S. ladies fits.

Even Gracie Gold, who reels off powerful triple-triples with height and ease, fell victim. The U.S. silver medalist opened her short to Gershwin's "Three Preludes" with a triple Lutz-triple toe loop, followed by an (under rotated) triple flip. When she went down on the double Axel, she could hardly believe it.

"I honestly thought I had landed it," the 18-year-old said. "When I watched the video in slow motion, I glided a long time before I fell, and it sort of caught me off guard. I thought I landed it, I really did. I had almost a complete check-out before I spun off."

Considering what's been happening with Gold lately, the 58.49 points she earned wasn't a bad result. Thursday, during an unofficial practice, her left boot heel separated, sending her mother, Denise, and U.S. Figure Skating senior performance director Mitch Moyer on a hurried ride to find an machine shop that could fix it. (They did, and Gold said the boot felt fine.)

More importantly, Gold parted ways with longtime coach Alex Ouriashev immediately after U.S. Figure Skating's Champs Camp in late August. She has trained in Canton, Mich., with Marina Zoueva and Oleg Epstein for much of the last three weeks. (The Gold family is not yet ready to announce a decision on a new coach.)

"Skating the whole day with ice dancers is different," Gold said. "They will say, 'Oh, that was a good run-through but I don't think you got your steps' level.' Because I think, 'I landed all my jumps.' They'll say, 'But what about that transition?' You get different feedback. I'm taking great strides, I think, trying to up that second mark."

Zoueva, who choreographed Gold's short as well as her free skate to Sleeping Beauty, thinks the teen is really maturing as a skater.

"We did special competition simulation practices to prepare for this event," she said. "Gracie is 18 now, she is a senior and she [can] represent a good, mature program. We are putting all of the elements in a frame, [making] everything more polished. I'm lucky to have a skater who can perform Sleeping Beauty the way she can."

Another powerhouse skater, U.S. bronze medalist Agnes Zawadzki, hit a huge triple Lutz to open her short, and then turned out of the landing of the second half of her triple toe-triple toe combination. She, too, faltered on the landing of her double Axel, but recovered well with good spins and steps. She sits just 2.29 points out of first.

"Going into my toe-toe, I had a moment of 'Where am I?'," the 19-year-old Colorado Springs skater said. "It was kind of an out-of-body experience. That's where I made my mistake, but I re-grouped with my layback.

"The Axel also wasn't the best, but I'm not here to do a perfectly clean program," she continued. "It's September; I'm looking forward to my Grand Prix events in November and December. It's a building process and taking what I learned here and putting it into my training."

Courtney Hicks, fourth in the U.S. last season, started her short with a triple flip-triple toe, but did not control the landing of the flip and had to take a step between the jumps.

Her triple Lutz, done near the end of her program, was stellar, but she fell on the dreaded double Axel. Her 54.80 points puts her third.

"I've been having a little bit of trouble just figuring out the Axel," said Hicks, who trains in Southern California under Jere Michael and Alex Chang. "It has always been kind of an odd jump for me. I think I tend to overthink it and get into more trouble."

While the jumps weren't her best, the 17-year-old was encouraged by the performance of the choreography.

"The rest of program, I thought I performed it a little better," she said. "I'm trying to get used to performing the choreography while still hitting the jumps."

Former Canadian champion Amélie Lacoste, who won the bronze medal here last season, is fourth after falling on a triple flip and during the second half of her triple loop-triple loop combination. She did land a solid double Axel, though, and earned 50.94 points.

Like Gold and Hicks, Samantha Cesario, eighth at the 2013 U.S. Championships, fell on her double Axel attempt. The 20-year-old New Yorker opened her "Fever" short with a triple loop-triple loop combination, but the second jump was downgraded.

Cesario also lost points in her non-jump elements, gaining just Level 2's for her layback spin and step, and Level 1 for her closing combination spin. She earned 47.91 points for fifth place.

"Loop-loop, I was happy with the attempt," Cesario said. "The combination has been on and off [in practice], but I was happy I went for it. The [triple] flip was fine.

"The Axel, I just kind of lost my focus and went around the edge. But I don't know where that score came from, to be honest with you."

Then she took a deep breath and summed Friday the 13th up in two words.

"It stinks."

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