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Gold clinches trip to Grand Prix Final with NHK title

Reigning U.S. champion wins first Grand Prix Series gold medal in Japan
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After a few near misses, Gracie Gold finally has her first Grand Prix gold medal. The U.S. champion won the free skate with a segment score of 123.00 and took home the title with a competition total of 191.16. Her finish here, combined with her third-place showing at Skate America, qualifies her for the Grand Prix Final for the first time in her career. -Getty Images

Gracie Gold managed to stay on top in the ladies free skate at the 2014 NHK Trophy to win her first Grand Prix title. Alena Leonova won silver for her third-career medal at the event (silver in '09, bronze in '11). Satoko Miyahara of Japan took bronze.

"Of course, I'm happy to win my first senior Grand Prix title, but I know I can still do better and improve, even upon this performance," Gold said. 

Skating to music from The Phantom of the Opera, the beginning of Gold's free went quite well and featured a beautiful triple Lutz-double toe combination and a double Axel-triple toe combination. Her mistakes came in the second half of the program. She doubled her flip and fell on a triple Salchow. Gold's spins were all high quality, as each earned Level 4.

The reigning U.S. champion looked uncertain when she sat at the kiss and cry, but when the scores were announced her face lit up. She collected 123.00 points in the free for a score of 191.16 overall to win the gold medal. This is Gold's fifth Grand Prix medal and her first gold.

"I had a good time out there. Audiences here were very supportive -- Japanese always are," Gold said.

With her third-place finish in Skate America, Gold qualified to compete in the Grand Prix Final for the first time. However, she explained that the qualification is a mixed blessing for her. A day earlier, Gold said that her main focus for this season is the U.S. and world championships, and that going to the Grand Prix Final would mean losing some training time.

"It is going to be an extremely difficult competition with four Russian girls, Ashley and me," said Gold, who maintained that she still looks forward to traveling to Barcelona. "It will be very interesting competition."

Leonova started her free strongly with a well-executed triple toe-triple toe combination, but she stepped out of a triple Lutz and two other jumps. She passionately expressed tango music on the ice and all of her spins gained Level 4. She was awarded 118.29 points to finish third in the free skate, but her total score of 186.40 points was good enough to hang on to second place. 

"It is hard to believe that I'm sitting here today," the 2012 world silver medalist said. "My free was not that great today and I was not satisfied. Maybe because I had a great short program yesterday I was able to win the silver."

Her next stop is the Russian championships, which will be held around Christmas time.

"I will rest a little and then I have to work hard to prepare," Leonova said. "The Russian Nationals are going to be tougher than the Europeans or the world [championships], maybe even tougher than the Olympic Games."

Finishing sixth at her previous Grand Prix event at Skate Canada, Leonova did not make it to the Grand Prix Final, but four of her teammates did. Elena Radionova, Elizaveta Tuktamisheva, Anna Pogorilaya and Julia Lipnitskaia will compete in Barcelona.

Miyahara moved up from fourth place after the short program to claim Japan's only medal for the ladies competition. She started her Miss Saigon free skate with a triple Lutz, but she put her hand down on the ice during the landing and later doubled her toe loop.

The 16-year-old recovered nicely and nailed a triple flip and four more clean triples. Miyahara's only other mistake was stepping out from a triple loop. Her score of 118.33 was second in the free skate, and her overall score of 179.02 points was good enough for her second bronze medal of the season. Miyahara is the second alternate for the Grand Prix Final.

"I was hoping to skate clean here, so I regret that I made some mistakes in the free," said Miyahara, who also won bronze at Skate Canada. "However, I feel happy to make it on the podium in both Grand Prix events that I competed."

Kanako Murakami, who was sitting in third place after short program, made some costly mistakes in her free. She doubled her planned triple loop, and she turned in two more double loops in combination with a triple Salchow. The International Skating Union changed the "Zayak Rule" this season, which states that skaters can't repeat the same jumps more than twice. The rule now applies not only to triple and quad jumps, but also to double jumps. Murakami's last combination therefore received no points and she finished seventh in the free to place fourth overall with a score of 173.09. She is the third alternate for the Grand Prix Final. For the first time in 14 years, Japanese ladies did not qualify for the Grand Prix Final.

A local favorite, 16-year-old Riona Kato, skated with no major mistakes in her fourth-place free to finish fifth overall. Team USA's Polina Edmunds recovered nicely from her struggles in the short program a day earlier, landing six triples to place fifth in the free skate. She finished eighth overall with 161.79 points. Christina Gao placed ninth with a score of 147.51.