Ice Network

Warrior Wagner sasses it up with winning short

17-year-old Mihara of Japan lands second; Gold falls on flip, sits third
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Ashley Wagner was brilliant throughout her performance in the Ladies short program on Day 1 of Skate America. -Getty Images

When Ashley Wagner hit Hoffman Estates for Skate America this week, she wasn't in her preferred competitive position. She was the favorite to win.

"I know I usually say I feel better as an underdog, but I've still got a lot to fight for," Wagner said earlier this week. "I guess I'll go into my warrior mode."

After Wagner's edgy, sexy short to the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams," who are we to disagree?

Performing with sly sass and knowing winks, the three-time U.S. champion glided through her most difficult elements, the triple flip-triple toe loop combination and triple loop, and sold her steps and linking moves with stylish vengeance. Her three spins gained Level 3's, and her performance quality helped her earn the highest program components scores of the night.

The only minor glitch came courtesy of the technical panel, who judged her triple toe under-rotated. Still, Wagner enters Saturday's free skate with 69.50 points and a 3.75-point lead.

"I think all of my training in the off-season came through for me," Wagner said. "I spent a lot of time working on my combination and my jump quality, as well as my spins."

Her world silver medal, won at age 24 after nearly a decade of senior competition, helped lift her through long days working under coach Rafael Arutunian at their rink in Lakewood, California.

"My training got me on to the podium," she said. "It motivated me; it made it a realistic goal (for me) to get on the Olympic podium. Hopefully, I am a different athlete from that world event."

Arutunian's job was to keep Wagner focused on the main prize: the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

"The difficulty was she came back after success last year, and I had to motivate her somehow," the coach said. "My point was, 'That was a page -- you must turn the other side and then start from scratch again.' And that's what she did. She looks better. I think she is a better athlete now, with even more experience than she had before."

Mai Mihara, a 17-year-old from Kobe, Japan, doesn't have much senior competitive experience, but she skated like a veteran to Saint-Saëns' "Rondo Capriccioso," hitting a big triple lutz-triple toe combination and gaining Level 4's for her spins. A minor blemish on the landing of a triple flip was her only flaw, and she earned 65.75 points.

"I couldn't believe how much the judges gave me," Mihara, who placed sixth at last season's Junior Grand Prix Final, said through an interpreter. "I was hoping to show everything I could do, and even though the flip wasn't perfect, I think I did that."

Mihara, a surprise winner of Nebelhorn Trophy last month, has impressed in practices here, skating clean short programs and free skates, and navigating her first senior Grand Prix seemingly without nerves.

"I fell on a little jump in the warm-up, and I think that helped me to relax," she said with a laugh. "Mostly, I am just honored to compete here at this big competition, with such important skaters."

Skating to "Assassin's Tango," Gracie Gold hit a big opening triple lutz-triple toe combination that racked up 11.70 points, the highest-scoring element of the night. But the U.S. champion lost ground when she fell on an under-rotated triple flip and sits third, just 0.88 points behind Mihara.

The program was a relative triumph for Gold, who has openly talked of struggling to regain her motivation and focus following a disappointing fourth-place finish at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships.

"I had a hard time getting my feet under me," she said. "There was no reason for it. I had nothing but positivity to look forward to. I felt like I let myself down; no one else felt the intense shame I felt. It was so internal. I had trouble getting back out there, but once I got the momentum going, I felt really excellent."

Frank Carroll, who trains Gold in El Segundo, California, thinks his skater has turned the corner.

"Could it have been better? Yes. Could it have been a lot worse? Yes," he said. "I think she looked very good physically, much thinner, in shape. It's starting to move. In another month or two, I think she's going to be in really good shape, if she keeps this up."

Carroll isn't too concerned about Gold's triple flip, a jump that has been scrutinized by technical panels and was given a warning for an incorrect inside edge take-off.

"She just didn't jump it up enough," he said. "She was a little bit slow. She didn't go up hard enough, not enough lift and snap."

Canada's Gabrielle Daleman faltered on the landing of the second jump in her triple lutz-triple toe but gained high marks for her other elements to place just behind Gold with 64.49 points.

Three-time world champion Mao Asada of Japan skated with grace and panache to Manuel de Falla's "Ritual Fire Dance," choreographed by Lori Nichol. But she didn't do her biggest technical tricks - the triple axel, or triple flip-triple loop combination - and her triple flip was judged under rotated, and is fifth with 64.47 points.

Mariah Bell, who was invited to Skate America two weeks ago after Angela Wang withdrew with injury, skated a sparkling short to music from Chicago, punctuating her steps and transitions with stag and split jumps, and playing to the crowd.

The second jump of her triple lutz-triple toe was under-rotated, but her 60.92-point score was a personal best.

"I felt a little bit nervous with it being Skate America," said Bell following her solid effort. "I got a little ahead of myself in a few spots, but overall I'm very proud of my performance."