Ice Network

Clutch Gold takes back U.S. title behind stellar free

Edmunds delivers strong performance; Wagner settles for bronze medal
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Gracie Gold stole the title back from Ashley Wagner, and she did it in dramatic fashion, taking the ice as the last competitor of the night and laying down a stellar free skate. The 20-year-old Californian recorded a personal-best score of 147.96 for her performance of her 'Firebird' routine and totaled 210.46 points for the competition, earning her her second U.S. crown in three years. -Jay Adeff

Following a frustrating short program, Gracie Gold knew she couldn't miss anything in the free skate. No more popped jumps, no falls -- no doubts. A self-described perfectionist, Gold knew she had to be perfect.

And when she needed that to happen most, on the grand stage of the ladies free skate at the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Saint Paul, Minnesota, she delivered.

It was a fight to the finish. Skating last in the event, Gold performed a fired-up rendition of Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird, landing all of her planned elements, from her opening triple lutz-triple toe combination to her final triple salchow. She scored 210.46 points to surpass Polina Edmunds, the leader after the short who also skated a clean program and finished with 207.51 points. Ashley Wagner, who was seeking a fourth U.S. title, came in third (197.88).

In a matter of 48 hours, Gold went from being "flummoxed" to feeling on top of the world.

"It was almost better knowing that I couldn't miss anything," Gold said. "I needed every ounce of Firebird."

When her scores were announced showing she had won her second U.S. title and first since 2014, Gold started jumping up and down in the kiss and cry. For a skater plagued by inconsistency, it was the right time to showcase to the judges at the U.S. championships -- and to a live television audience -- what she routinely shows her coach, Frank Carroll, at her training rink in El Segundo, California.

"I told you she could do that," Carroll said.

But it was by no means an easy feat.

"The key was really that I knew that I didn't need to change anything," Gold said. "I've skated that exact program at Toyota Center. In practice, I skated that program yesterday. I know every single step and the whole rhythm of the program. It's like a necklace that is strung. I just know how it goes. It's when things start to change that I have problems, and it leaves me flummoxed. It's so well-rehearsed that messing up feels out of character. I do clean programs at home, so doing it here feels good that all of my hard work paid off."

The final group of ladies was especially strong. Wagner got the crowd in the Xcel Energy Center energized with her rendition of Moulin Rouge!. She was clean up until her final jump, a popped triple lutz. But she was passionate from start to finish, and the lyrics, especially "The show must go on," clearly resonated for the 24-year-old veteran. The crowd cheered throughout, and she received a standing ovation.

"The mistake caught me off guard," Wagner said. "I was so excited for the program and then just didn't think through the very end. So kids, it's not over 'till it's over!

"I don't want that lutz to overshadow this program," Wagner continued. "This program was by far my best one yet. It shows that I'm still building and that this is a two-part game. I am a long program competitor, and my strengths showed tonight."

Wagner was followed by Mirai Nagasu, who won the U.S. title the last time the event was held in Saint Paul, in 2008. Nagasu's boot ripped in the middle of her short program, and boot experts were busy repairing it for the last two days. Still, she produced a nearly clean performance (her triple flip received an edge call).

"To be completely honest, more than anybody, my coach (Tom Zakrajsek) was the most traumatized by this event," Nagasu said. "It was out of our control, and because it was out of my control, I was completely OK with it.

"There is always room for improvement, but considering the circumstances, I did get a little nervous about my boots," Nagasu said. "I forgot how to tie them correctly because they feel just a little bit different, but we had the best working on them for an all-nighter and for that I am so grateful, grateful I didn't have to break in new boots.

Entering the free in third, Tyler Pierce took the ice next. With the exception of a fall on her triple flip, Pierce, 17, skated a solid program. The very respectable performance included a triple lutz-triple toe, but her components scores couldn't those of the rival the top skaters, and she dropped to fifth.

Edmunds was up next, and it was clear the work she had done with choreographer Rudy Galindo paid off. Skating to selections from Gone with the Wind, Edmunds was also technically solid, amassing 22 points on her first two jump combinations (triple lutz-triple toe, triple flip-loop-triple salchow).

When she finished her routine, it appeared the championship was hers for the taking.

"I feel great," Edmunds said. "I did a clean program, and I'm really happy that I put everything out and did what I wanted to do, in my head."

But Gold wasn't about to give up that easily.

She stepped out on the ice and was determined to reclaim her title and put her consistency demons to bed.

She achieved both of those goals and earned a spot on her fourth worlds team.

"Obviously, I feel way better going into the Boston world championships now that I have won this and qualified for it," Gold said. "I feel better than after the short program, opening with a single. I just need to keep my nose down and keep training so that when I get out there, I take all the BS out. What would I do if this was the 11 o'clock session and Frank had me go through a run-through? I wouldn't do a single [jump]."

Gold's spot on the world team is the only one cemented, although it is highly likely that she will be joined once again by Edmunds and Wagner. The trio has represented the United States at the last three world championships.

ICE CHIPS -- Both Karen Chen and Mariah Bell lost critical points for repeating double toe loops. Chen did not receive credit for her triple salchow-double toe-double toe combination, while Bell lost credit for her triple lutz-double toe-double toe and double axel-double toe combinations. While Chen ended up moving up from 12th after the short program to eighth place, Bell dropped from sixth to 11th. Chen started ad-libbing after taking the triple toe out of her planned opening triple lutz-triple toe combination and lost track.

"I was going to do a double toe-double loop, but I never really practiced it that much," Chen said. "After I did the combination, I thought, 'Oh shoot. I did too many double toes.'"