Varied trio sits atop standings after ladies shortAsada leads on strength of triple Axel; Wagner hits triple-triple, sits second
The press conference after the ladies short program at 2013 Skate America served up a study in contrasts.
In the center was 23-year-old Mao Asada, the two-time world champion and 2010 Olympic silver medalist who, many say, might have won the 2006 Olympics if she had not been too young (under ISU rules) to compete.
To the left sat Ashley Wagner, 22, the feisty, outspoken U.S. champion who's coming into her own after taking charge of her career and moving to California a few seasons ago.
And to the right was Elena Radionova, the 14-year-old Russian wisp who skates with a joy that reminds many of Asada almost 10 years ago.
All three had reason to celebrate. Asada hit her trademark triple Axel, fully rotated and with just a slight two-foot on the landing. Wagner nailed a triple flip-triple toe combination in her short for the first time. Radionova, competing at her first senior Grand Prix, was happy to be in their company.
Asada, especially, looked pleased and relieved to be leading by 3.92 points heading into the free skate.
"For past few seasons, I was not able to perform my best at my first Grand Prix, so I am happy I was able to do a fairly good performance," she said through an interpreter.
Asada was far more than "fairly good." Skating to Chopin's "Nocturne," choreographed by long-time collaborator Lori Nichol, she glided across the ice with grace and ease, nailing a triple flip and triple loop-double loop and executing peerless Level 4 steps. Her score of 73.18 was just a few points off her all-time high, impressive for her first short of the season.
"I was a little bit nervous before I skated," Mao said. "I wanted to perform the program the way I do it in practice.
"After the Vancouver Olympics, I re-learned all of my jumps. This season, for the first time, I feel like everything is finally coming together. There are times I succeed and times I make mistakes, but I think I am finally getting it."
Wagner performed her edgy, sophisticated short to Pink Floyd's "Shine on You Crazy Diamond" with authority, hitting strong positions and carrying good speed through choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne's intricate steps and transitions. Her triple flip-triple toe was the highlight, but she also landed a superb triple loop. Her 69.26 points beat her previous personal best by more than three points.
"I have never gotten the flip-toe out in the short, and to get it called clean was a huge accomplishment for me," Wagner said. "This is a very fun program for me to perform and as the season goes on it should only get stronger."
When John Nicks retired from traveling after last season, Wagner added noted jump technician Rafael Arutunian to her coaching team. According to the skater, the benefits have been almost immediate.
"This season I have a completely different mindset with the triple-triple," she said. "I don't even do the triple-double at home in practice anymore. [The triple-triple] is a full-time job, so in competition, I have no doubts. I don't practice the triple-double, so why not go for the triple-triple?"
Radionova opened her short with a triple Lutz-triple toe, and then didn't put a foot wrong. She gained Level 4's for all of her non-jump elements and morphed herself into extraordinary spin positions, including the best Biellmann of the event.
The teen earned 67.01, a new personal best and more than two points higher than her winning score at the Nebelhorn Trophy last month.
"This competition is a new level for me, and I did not expect this result," she said through an interpreter. "It is great for me to be here with these two accomplished skaters."
The youngster from Moscow, an only child who began skating at age 3, explained she was excited but not nervous.
"I was really calm. I kept it together very well," she said. "This competition has big meaning for me. Tomorrow I will show you my free skating. Of course, I hope for a very good performance, but whatever will be, will be."
In the mixed zone, reporters asked Radionova, who was born Jan. 6, 1999, if she was sad not to have a chance to qualify for Sochi.
"No, I am not," she said. "In Russia, there are many strong girls."
Asada was asked whether she had any advice for the Russian youngster, based on her own experiences during the 2005-06 season.
"I would tell her, take joy in your skating," she said. "Do it because you love to do it."
Samantha Cesario, eighth at the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, went for broke with a triple loop-triple loop in her "Fever" short. Although she landed the difficult combination, the second jump was downgraded by the technical panel. Her 53.51 points put her eighth entering the free skate.
"I thought it was a good attempt," the 20-year-old New Yorker said. "To get the downgrade was unfortunate, but I went for it, and I'm happy I did it."
Caroline Zhang was 10th with 45.76 points.