Wagner wins gold, but training mate Bell wins daySilver medalist sets personal best, wins free; Gold stumbles into fifth
Digging deep, keeping her cool and adjusting her program on the fly, Ashley Wagner fought her way to Skate America gold Saturday, even though she wasn't at her best.
"Today was a little sticky, but at the end of the day, I got the job done," Wagner said.
The "sticky" referred mostly to the absence of a planned triple-triple combination that Wagner turned into a single triple loop, as well as under-rotation calls on the second jump in her triple flip-triple toe loop combination and second triple flip. The skater was also disappointed in two Level 3 spins, saying Level 4 was "dearly missing."
Performance-wise, her free skate, choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne to "Exogenosis: Symphony Part 3" by Muse, was exactly what it needed to be: intense and reflective, with a slow burn of regret and angst. It earned 126.94 points, including by far the highest program components score of the event, putting Wagner second to training partner Mariah Bell in the free skate but first overall with 196.44 points.
"It would be amazing to have perfect programs every single time, but sometimes you need programs where they're not bad, but they're not great," Wagner said. "It kind of keeps you in check on where you are and what you need to work on."
For her second Skate America win in five seasons, Wagner worked through a battery of challenges: Living up to the world silver medal she won last season, competing as a favorite as opposed to an underdog and pre-event hype about a face-off with U.S. champion Gracie Gold.
"The amount of nerves that I felt going into this competition, I would not have been able to handle last year," Wagner said. "The way that it was built up to be the ultimate showdown between Gracie and I, that was something coming into this I felt the pressure of, but I dealt with it and I didn't succumb to that. I pushed through, and that's how I got to the top of this podium."
The showdown between Wagner and Gold fizzled, as Gold fell twice and turned an intended triple flip into a double in her "Daphne and Chloe" free skate. But Bell stepped in to fill the breach.
Bell sparkled in her free to "East of Eden," hitting a big opening triple lutz-triple toe combination, a second triple lutz and a triple flip late in the program, and making the most of choreographer Rohene Ward's exciting steps and highlight moves. Her 130.67 points shattered her previous personal best, and she finished with 191.59 points.
"I had a good showing at my first senior B (a silver medal at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic), then I had another senior B (Ondrej Nepela Memorial) where I also medaled," Bell said. "I was able to take my confidence from those events to push me forward. Changing training environments has been something that's really motivated me also."
Bell, who previously trained alongside Jason Brown in Monument, Colorado, moved two months ago to Rafael Arutunian's rink in Lakewood, California, where she shares ice with Wagner and Adam Rippon. Arutunian has focused on the skater's triple-triple combination and triple loop, work that is already paying big dividends.
"Going into nationals and getting on the podium, making the world team, I think is very realistic for me," Bell said. "Right now, though, I'm just focused on going home and getting back to work."
Japanese teenager Mai Mihara, the surprise winner of Nebelhorn Trophy last month, continued her competitive climb with a bronze medal here. She hit a triple lutz-triple toe and three other triples, and although a second triple lutz combination was messy and under-rotated, she finished with 189.28 points.
"My program started off well, but then I got a bit tired," Mihara said through an interpreter. "This is something I have to work on for the future. Mostly, though, I am so honored to compete here."
The 17-year-old also made a new friend.
"Ashley Wagner was very nice to me. She told me how much she enjoyed my short program," Mihara said. "I am so flattered that such an important skater said that to me."
Canada's Gabrielle Daleman fell on a triple lutz but hit a triple toe-triple toe combination and a triple flip to place fourth with 186.63 points.
Gold, who has talked openly about struggling to regain motivation and momentum following her disappointing fourth-place finish at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships, had an evening to forget, falling on her triple loop and triple salchow and reducing a few other intended triples to doubles. Her 184.22 points put her fifth.
"It was an unfortunate long program; the score was overly generous," Gold said. "Obviously, I just need to go back to the drawing board. The long program isn't where it should be for this point in the season.
"The only thing to do is to continue training," she continued. "We just need to adjust my physical shape and mental shape and see if the program can be salvaged for the rest of the year."
Three-time world champion Mao Asada, who has struggled with a left knee injury, skated a graceful and captivating free skate but was unable to execute several of her most difficult jumps and placed sixth.