Ice Network

Pulkinen leads junior men after 'best short ever'

Krasnozhon falls on triple lutz combination, sits second; Sjoberg third
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Camden Pulkinen brimmed with intensity throughout his "Piano Concerto No. 2" short, which featured a clean triple axel and triple lutz-triple toe combination. The Colorado Springs skater was rewarded for his fine performance with 73.41 points, putting him far ahead of his competitors. -Jay Adeff

Guys like Camden Pulkinen make the long days at Colorado Springs' World Arena a little easier for Tom Zakrajsek to take.

Each day, the Arizona native shows maturity -- not to mention a touch of class -- far beyond his 16 years: He never kicks the ice, he never gets down on himself, and he always applauds other skaters' efforts.

"He's got such a good spirit," Zakrajsek said. "He's just a friendly, happy-go-lucky guy. If he has a bad practice, he takes it in stride. It's very enjoyable to work with him."

That attitude extended to the junior men's short program at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Wednesday. When his name was called, Pulkinen stepped onto the ice, formally shook hands with Zakrajsek and associate coach Becky Calvin, nodded his thanks -- and went out to skate the best competitive routine of his life to gain a 6.52-point lead over the field.

"I think this whole sport is about respect for the ice, respect for the coaches," Pulkinen said. "When I show respect for my coaches' knowledge, I feel more like a student, I feel more present. And I think that goes for the ice, too -- I usually don't get that mad on the ice."

Skating with verve and attack to a medley of Rachmaninoff piano concertos, Pulkinen soared into a big triple axel, followed by a solid triple lutz-triple toe loop combination. His steps were fleet, his spins attractive and secure. The program earned 73.41 points, a career best for the skater.

"To break 70 is tremendous," Pulkinen said. "Last year, I never broke 60. This is my best short ever in competition.

"In practice, especially before sectionals and before my Junior Grand Prix (event), I was a little bit nervous and hesitant," he continued. "That's why I used to cheat the axel in the short -- I wasn't attacking. So we came to the conclusion I have to attack it, I can't be afraid of falling -- I've got to go for it."

Zakrajsek emphasized that while Pulkinen was always a strong skater, his progress since moving to Colorado Springs last June has been swift.

"He learned the triple axel in a couple of months, as well as triple-triples," the coach said. "He's working on a quad toe, but it's not ready for competition yet. Plus, he's working a lot with Tom Dickson and Ben Agosto on the artistic side of his skating, developing the whole package. It's a blessing to train someone like that."

The favorite for the junior men's crown, Junior Grand Prix Final qualifier Alex Krasnozhon opened his short to Chopin's "Étude 10 No. 3" with a big triple loop and huge triple axel, but he fell on a triple lutz and failed to complete a combination. His 66.89 points mean he has ground to make up, but the 16-year-old skater -- who plans a quadruple loop in his free skate -- thinks he can do it.

"The whole season I've been doing (the lutz) clean. There's got to be one time that you fall," said Krasnozhon, who trains in Dallas under Peter and Darlene Cain. "I'm still very happy with my score. I secured my spot for the last warmup (group), and the short program doesn't mean as much as the free program."

Known for his powerful jumps, the Russian-born skater has worked to enhance his style and skating skills, which showed in his far more elegant program here.

"Last season I had a Michael Jackson (short program), but this season I decided to show a whole different side of my skating," Krasnozhon said. "Before, I was showing my happy clown side, but at the same time, I wanted to show everybody that I'm not a clown."

"[Alex] presented the Chopin to me, and I thought it was an interesting, different direction for him, and it's been well-received," Scott Brown, Krasnozhon's choreographer, said. "If you watch in the warmup, all of his skating has elevated, even since the JGP Final. The fall on the combination was unfortunate today. We'll see in the free."

Last season's novice champion, Eric Sjoberg, performed a lyrical program to Rachmaninoff's "Trio élégiaque No. 1" that included fine spins and a solid triple flip-triple toe combination, but also a messy triple loop. (The 15-year-old does not yet have a triple axel, although one is in the works.) He earned 60.73 points, good for third place.

"I'm a little bit disappointed in it," said Sjoberg, who trains in Rafael Arutunian's group in Southern California. "It was OK, but it wasn't strong. I didn't really fight for everything. I'm happy with some things in the program, but overall, I was very tentative."

Ryan Dunk, who also skated to "Trio élégiaque No. 1," sits fourth with 57.78 points. Although the Baltimore skater performed his step sequence with elegance and conviction, and hit a solid triple loop, he faltered on an intended triple lutz-triple toe loop combination.