Ice Network

Redemption! Wagner reclaims spot as top U.S. lady

Gold turns in solid free to win silver; Chen takes bronze in surprise finish
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Ashley Wagner reacts after reclaiming the U.S. ladies title, the third of her career, following a dominating 148.98-point free skate that included a successful triple lutz-triple toe as well as a triple loop-loop-triple Salchow combination. The SC of Wilmington skater finished with a final score of 221.02 points, finding redemption after her fourth-place finish at the U.S. championships last year. -Jay Adeff

On Saturday, a gutsy Ashley Wagner reclaimed her spot atop the U.S. ladies field with a technically and artistically superior free skate that earned the highest score (148.98 points) ever awarded at a U.S. championships.

Wagner's total skate score also set a new U.S. standard, eclipsing that set by Gracie Gold last season. It was her third U.S. title in four years, putting her in a category that includes Jill Trenary, Rosalynn Sumners and Dorothy Hamill.

The victory at the 2015 U.S. Figure Skating Championships was sweet redemption for the scrappy, outspoken skater, whose disappointing fourth-place finish last season made her a controversial choice for the 2014 U.S. Olympic and world teams.

"This one tastes the sweetest; this one means the most to me," Wagner said. "Because this one shows every single person who doubts me, every single person who says I'm too old, every single person who says I'm not capable of being a leading lady -- this shows them that they need to shut their mouths and watch me skate."

At age 23, Wagner is certainly not old by current figure skating standards; two of the three Olympic ladies' medalists in Sochi were her age, or older. But this week, she did what few women her age do: add a new triple-triple combination -- in her case, a triple Lutz-triple toe -- to both her short program and free skate.

Skating Saturday night to music from Moulin Rouge, Wagner hit that difficult element, as well as a triple loop-loop-triple Salchow sequence and three other triple jumps, four in the second half of the program. The judges rewarded her composed, expressive storytelling as well, handing out eight perfect scores of 10 for performance and choreography. Her only real flaw was a Level 2 on her closing spin.

Wagner credited Rafael Arutunian, who coaches her in Artesia, California, with both her new technical prowess and the mental game to execute the elements she does in practices.

"I feel like Raf and I are finally starting to understand each other, to the point where he can figure out how to make me calm when I'm actually terrified," she said. "Tonight was a stepping stone to what I think I'm capable of doing."

Gold, who wrested the U.S. title from Wagner last season and went on to finish as the top U.S. lady at Olympics and world championships, also had fine free skate, including a sterling triple Lutz-triple toe combination. But she fell on a triple flip and gained far lower program component scores than her rival, earning 138.52 points and 205.54 overall.

"It was really hard to skate a long program after the roar of the crowd and the ovation," said the 19-year-old Gold, who performed immediately following Wagner. "It brought me back to Sochi, when I skated after Adelina Sotnikova. It was hard and I was really nervous for this competition. [The U.S. championships] is always a big one, but I skated really well and the competition was really tough."

Gold withdrew from the Grand Prix Final early in December, citing a stress fracture in her left foot. But she said the injury had healed and did not trouble her in Greensboro, and in her free skate, she landed two tough combinations that included a triple toe, which uses a left foot take-off.

"That was a great, great long program and I'm happy with my score," said Gold, who trains under Frank Carroll in Los Angeles. "I know I didn't take the title here, but all the women were flawless and it was a great competition. I'm more than happy with how the week went, but we still have some work to do before Four Continents and worlds."

Wagner and Gold's programs in Greensboro -- and that of fourth-place finisher Polina Edmunds, who will likely also be named to the U.S. world team -- reignite hopes that a U.S. lady can claim a world medal, something that has not happened since 2006, when Kimmie Meissner won gold and Sasha Cohen won bronze.

"I think the U.S. ladies showed that we are a force to be reckoned with tonight," Wagner said. "So going into the world championships, I think we definitely have the technical side, I think we're starting to bring the artistry, and the whole package, so I think we're ready. We're coming in hot and the world better watch out."

In a surprise, 15-year-old Karen Chen roared out of the pack with a career-best free skate including six triples and stunning spins, the last a Level 4 layback to fully stretched Biellmann that gained +3 Grades of Execution (GOEs) from all eight judges. Sixth after the short, her 135.13-point free skate lifted her to the bronze medal.

"It has been a tough two years, and I'm just very glad I was able to do two good programs," said Chen, whose broken ankle last season caused her to miss the Junior Grand Prix Final and withdraw from the U.S. championships after the junior ladies short program. "I just feel it's a good improvement from what I've done before. I've always struggled a little bit with confidence and believing in myself until a few months ago, [when] I finally felt I could stand my ground."

The diminutive skater was born on August 16, 1999, and is too young, under ISU rules, to compete at the 2015 World Figure Skating Championships, something that doesn't trouble her in the least.

"I think I want to wait until I'm more mentally prepared, and taller," said Chen, who trains in Riverside, California, under Tammy Gambill. "I would like to compete at junior worlds this year." (Chen placed ninth at the event last season.)

It was also a good night for Edmunds, who sat third after the short. The 16-year-old from Northern California hit two tough combinations -- a triple Lutz-triple toe, and triple flip-loop-triple Salchow -- before falling on her second triple Lutz.  

"I'm OK with everything that happened," Edmunds said. "I pretty much fought for everything in the second half of the program and even though I fell, I got up and continued the program and showed my fighting spirit to land the other jumps. I'm pretty happy with that."

New Yorker Samantha Cesario executed seven triples in her free skate to Bizet's Carmen to climb from 11th after the short to fifth overall. A newcomer to the top senior ranks, 18-year-old Mariah Bell, was sixth.

The evening wasn't a success for everyone. Mirai Nagasu, the 2008 U.S. champion who won U.S. bronze last season, hit a double Axel-triple toe loop combination in her free skate, only to run into the boards during a back cross-over. Nagasu was able to finish her program, finishing 10th overall, but left the ice in obvious pain. According to a U.S. Figure Skating medical bulletin, the skater hyperextended her knee and bruised cartilage. She was treated with ice and a compression bandage, and will be reevaluated Sunday.