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Minnesota morsels: Ladies say it's a beautiful day

Wagner, Gold have eyes on the prize; Edmunds focuses on choreography
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The growing rivalry between Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner is one of the dominant storylines in Saint Paul. -Getty Images

Judging from post-practice interviews at the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Wednesday, everything is A-OK with the top ladies contenders as they head into their short programs Thursday.

Missed jump in the practice run-though? Just a fluky little thing. Changed any jumps in your program? No need: My practices at home are just great. Disappointing prior competition? I'm over it already.

Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold fairly outdid themselves to see who could be more upbeat, although defending champion Wagner did own up to piling extra pressure on herself this season.

"(My) good skates have been phenomenal -- I'm putting out personal bests -- but then I go out there and it's beyond mediocre," Wagner said, referencing her experience at the Grand Prix Final, where followed a disappointing short program with a personal-best free skate.

"I'm 24, I only have a couple of years left in this sport, and what I've done this season is put too much pressure on what I'm going to do with my time left. I think with the long program at the Grand Prix Final, it was one element at a time and I didn't think about the result. I was just getting the job done."

The three-time champion would love to win a fourth U.S. crown, but she clearly has her sights set on the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships in Boston 10 weeks from now.

"I want to remain champion, but my goal has nothing to do with placement here," she said. "It is all about getting the job done and putting my focus on worlds."

Wagner and training partners Adam Rippon and Nathan Chen, along with coach Rafael Arutunian, left their home rink in Artesia, California, to practice at the Colorado Springs World Arena for several weeks heading into the U.S. championships.

"That (training plan) really worked for me going into Skate Canada; I knew, no matter what, if I put out that long program, I was going to be able to handle it," she said. "So I'm feeling pretty solid coming into this event."

Gold brushed aside suggestions that she and coach Frank Carroll might consider swapping out the triple flip in her "El Choclo" short program. The U.S. silver medalist doubled the jump at Skate America and the Grand Prix Final.

"There was a debate about it. We had thought, 'Should we put the loop in?'" Gold said. "No, that's ridiculous, that's absurd. [Triple flip] is a great jump for me, and we just worked on being tougher -- tougher than I've had to be in other times -- and just (not) making a problem where there isn't one.

"I never do double flips; I don't even warm up double flips," she added. "Why it would come out in a competition is an unknown, terrible thing that will never happen again."

The skaters were equally buoyant regarding their growing rivalry.

"[Gracie] is my tough competition in the States. She is definitely someone who has been breathing down the back of my neck for many years," Wagner said. "She has pushed me to up the technical ante, and I think that over the past few seasons I've improved more than any 24-year-old I've ever seen. So, she's been helping me out. If it weren't for her, I wouldn't be in the position I am today."

"Every great athlete has a great rivalry," Gold said. "I don't think that's a coincidence."

Edmunds' jumps are Gone with the Wind

Wagner and Gold showed complete run-throughs of their free skates at practice Wednesday. Polina Edmunds, the 2014 Olympian who placed fourth in the U.S. last season, took a different tact.

When the soaring strains of "Tara's Theme" from Gone with the Wind filled the Xcel Energy Center, Edmunds left out her jumps and spins to focus solely on choreography and the emotion of the program.

"Everyone can watch the technical elements as all the girls practice, but for me, when the music is on, it's about showing the best choreography," she said.

Edmunds, whose best moments on this season's Grand Prix came during her fourth-place finish at the Rostelecom Cup, has lost points from time to time due to under-rotated jumps. But the 17-year-old senior at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, California, didn't just focus on technical elements heading into Saint Paul.

"I've been working with (choreographer) Rudy Galindo every week," she said. "We've really been focusing on the different expressions in my Gone with the Wind long, the changes of music, and coordinating that with choreography and body movements. ... I've been working hard on all of my elements, obviously, but also working on the quality of the program as a whole, connecting everything with the choreography."

Edmunds, who plans two triple-triple combinations in her free skate, isn't troubled by the media focus on the Ashley-Gracie rivalry.

"Hopefully I can show the crowd and the judges I'm a champion and win them over," she said. "I don't think I'm flying under the radar as much as I'm coming as a strong athlete that everyone knows is strong, and I'm really excited to be able to show my strength."

Hicks will fake it 'till she makes world team

Courtney Hicks hasn't made her world championships debut yet. But the Southern California skater -- who won silver at the NHK Trophy in late November, defeating three-time world champion Mao Asada -- plans to compete in Saint Paul like a world team veteran.

"I'm trained, I'm ready, and I'm going for this," Hicks said. "Fake it 'till you make it, I think that's a really good mentality. I want no doubts, no worries; I can do this, I belong here -- now just go do it."

Coaches Jere Michael and Alex Chang have worked hard to instill that attacking mindset in the 20-year-old, who was disappointed with her eighth-place finish at the 2015 U.S. Championships.

"Coming in here, we've been working on making her feel and skate like she's (already) part of the U.S. world team," Michael said. "She's got the hardest free skate here, (with) two triple-triples (triple flip-triple toe and triple lutz-loop-triple salchow)."

Hicks' jump layout in her free skate to selections from the Elizabeth: The Golden Age soundtrack is the same as it was at NHK. A one-point timing deduction she incurred at that event, however, prompted Michael and Chang to make a key change.

"[The step sequence] has been shortened a little bit to cut down on extra stuff," Hicks said. "We made it more efficient. We didn't take out the choreography, just stuff I didn't need."

Chen backloads Les Miz

Karen Chen, last year's surprise bronze medalist, arrived in Saint Paul with a newly tweaked free skate to music from Les Misérables.

"We did change the combinations and patterns, the overall program and the performance," the 16-year-old said.

She now plans to do her three combinations -- double axel-triple toe, double axel-triple salchow and triple lutz-double toe -- all in the program's second half.

"I think they've been going really well," Chen said. "I've been doing them in practice, and I've been fairly consistent. I'm glad to be here, and I want to go out there and put my nerves aside and really go for it."

Tammy Gambill, who coaches Chen in Riverside, California, thinks her skater can handle the backloading strategy.

"It's about maximizing the points and expression, making more of that mature program," Gambill said. "She's strong, her stamina is great, and it's not a hard thing for her to get those done in the second half. She's getting stronger and more mature every week."

Nagasu gets warm welcome

Mirai Nagasu has already had success in Saint Paul, meeting fans at an autograph-signing session at Pierce Skate & Ski in Bloomington, Minnesota.

"A lot more people showed up than I expected, which is a very touching gesture, and so it was a nice way to start off the week," she said.

This is the ninth senior ladies event for Nagasu, who won the title on her first try in 2008. The 22-year-old is determined to attack her programs and leave Saint Paul with no regrets.

"I've been competing at nationals a long time. I always come in with a lot of nerves and excitement," she said. "It's a lot of blood, sweat and tears, literally. But I like it, and I like the challenges I have to face with it. I like that it keeps me focused and teaches a lot of great life lessons.

"I've skated too long to give up halfway," she added. "I guess I want to keep going even though my career has been full of ups and downs."

Wagner's training trip to the World Arena also helped Nagasu, who trains at the facility under coach Tom Zakrajsek.

"It was really crowded," she said. "They have a large training camp, I guess is the word, so we had to all sign up for ice in advance. Skating with a lefty (Wagner) always keeps me on my toes. I thought it was a great experience for all of us. It was fun."

Zakrajsek likes his pupil's chances in Saint Paul.

"Mirai is getting better at managing her nerves under pressure, so she can attack more fully," he said. "At NHK (where she finished fifth), she showed how strong she could be under pressure. Her short program there was a big breakthrough. She hadn't scored internationally over 60 points in a while, and I think she was underscored a bit. That's par for the course in skating; she had to re-prove herself."