Ice Network

Program swap catapults Gold into ladies lead

Edmunds shocks by finishing second; Nagasu takes third, Wagner fourth
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The competitive debut of Gracie Gold's new short program could not have gone any better as the erstwhile Bostonian soared to the lead, scoring a U.S.-record 72.12 points in the process. -Jay Adeff

There was some question about the risk-reward for Gracie Gold changing her short program roughly two months before the competition that would play a major role in determining whether she earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

She answered everyone in a span of about two minutes and 40 seconds Thursday night at the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Gold posted a record score of 72.12 points in her competitive debut with her program performed to a piano concerto by Edvard Grieg, a routine she and chorographer Lori Nichol put together shortly after Gold returned from the NHK Trophy in mid-November. Gold said she had been doing two-a-day run-throughs of the routine every day since she got the new program.

"It felt amazing," said Gold, who had only tested the routine at three exhibitions prior to performing it in Boston's TD Garden. "I'm glad the first time I skated it, I was able to perform it the way I practiced it."

Her previous program was to George Gershwin music, but her coach, Frank Carroll, said it featured a lot of high-pitched violins and "a lot of people said it sounded like cats fighting."

"It was screechy, I will admit," Carroll said.

The decision to swap programs proved to be the right one, not only because the audience didn't have to listen to fighting felines but the crowd also was treated to a strong athletic performance. Gold's routine featured a strong triple Lutz-triple toe which covered a great distance across the ice.

It was a marked improvement over her showing last year at nationals in the short program, when she was predicted to be among the leaders and then placed ninth.

At the end of her program, Gold put her hand over her mouth in a state of disbelief.

Another skater performed almost equally well but didn't seem nearly in as much disbelief with the results as virtually everyone around her: Polina Edmunds.

The 15-year-old who won the junior title a year ago dazzled the senior field with a stunning performance of her own. Edmunds, who lives in San Jose, Calif., also landed a triple Lutz-triple toe combination and a triple flip (compared to Gold who did the relatively easier triple loop) to earn 66.75 points. She is in second place entering the free skate Saturday, prompting Carroll to tell reporters, "She is the future."

It wasn't just that Edmunds' jumps were huge; it was that she skated with a confidence of a performer with many more years of experience. Coached by her mother, Nina Edmunds, who is Russian, Edmunds reportedly had been getting some lessons with Carroll over the past six months as well.

When asked if she was surprised by her performance or by her high marks, Edmunds replied matter-of-factly that she was not.

"Not really," she said, "because my program has the highest difficulty in it. It couldn't have been much better than that. I got the scores that I think I deserved."

Three women will be selected to make the Olympic team following the competition here, and the U.S. champion is not guaranteed a spot in Sochi. An international selection committee will pick the trio to send with a lot of weight given to this competition but also to other major competitions.

Although some predicted Edmunds might skate well, few would have pegged her to be in second place after the short program, and even fewer would have thought she would have finished higher than two-time defending champion Ashley Wagner.

Wagner, who entered with seemingly one of the most secure chances of making the Olympic team, finds herself in fourth place after trimming a triple flip-triple toe into a triple double and for turning out on the landing of a triple loop. She is 7.51 points out of first place but said she will be ready for the free skate.

"I'm ready to fight," Wagner said.

Wagner's coach, Rafael Arutunian, blamed part of her troubles on boot problems, saying her previous pair broke down and her new ones left her with blisters on both her feet.

Although Wagner is still expected to make the Olympic team, it is Edmunds who is making a case to be on it as well.

Asked about whether she thought about competing in the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Edmunds said, "I think everyone's thinking about making the Olympic team."

In third place is Mirai Nagasu, who is the only one of the top performers in the short program who has Olympic experience. She last won a U.S. title in 2008 and just missed the podium at the Winter Games in Vancouver in 2010. But she has finished seventh in her last two U.S. championship trips and has been coach-less since the Rostelecom Cup in Russia in late November. Her last coach was Amy Evidente.

Nagasu said she spent a few weeks in Japan and also had a short stint in Scottsdale, Ariz. She said she does plan to find a coach after this event.

Ashley Cain, who finished 12th at last year's Championships, finds herself in fifth place, followed by Christina Gao, who was sailing through her routine with a triple toe-triple toe only to stumble twice in her footwork sequence. Gao skated with a bandage on her left shoulder, which she said popped during a recent practice at the nearby Skating Club of Boston.

"It's a good thing I don't jump with my shoulder," Gao said with a laugh.

Many of the skaters predicted to be in the hunt for an Olympic spot find themselves woefully out of contention now. Agnes Zawadzki, a winner of back-to-back U.S. bronze medals, is in 13th, and Courtney Hicks, the fourth-place finisher in 2013, is 16th.

Rachael Flatt, who represented the U.S. Olympic team in Vancouver but has battled numerous injuries and has been juggling a heavy pre-med course load at Stanford, is 20th in what she said will be her last trip to the U.S. championships. Although Flatt popped her opening planned triple Lutz, she rebounded by landing a triple flip-double toe.

Placement and performance disappointment aside, Flatt was happy to be back in her element, reunited with friends and performing in the sport once again.

"She is the perfect example of someone who's skating because she loves the sport," Wagner said.