Ice Network

Chen stuns with magical short in Kansas City

Record-setting performance has youngster on top; Wagner finishes third
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Karen Chen started her 'On Golden Pond' program with a huge triple lutz-triple toe combination -- and she just kept getting better from there. The 2015 U.S. bronze medalist set a new U.S. record for the short with a score of 72.82 to position herself atop the standings. -Jay Adeff

Every so often a superb performance comes along that's so unexpected, it jolts the sport and demands everyone that sees it sit up and take notice.

That's what happened at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City, Missouri, on Thursday night, when Karen Chen took the ice for her self-choreographed short program, set to music from Dave Gruisin's On Golden Pond.

Skating with finely balanced delicacy and attack, the 17-year-old opened with a huge triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, closed with a superb layback spin and produced nothing short of magic in between.

"Everything came together. I trained this program over and over," the soft-spoken Chen said. "It's such a special program for me, and I'm just happy I was able to pull it all together out there."

Chen's score of 72.82 put her less than a point ahead of Mirai Nagasu, who earned 71.95 points for a stunning program marred only by a two-footed landing on a triple loop. Ashley Wagner sits third after gaining 70.94 points for her edgy, sassy short to the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams." Defending champion Gracie Gold is fifth, some 8.57 points off the lead, after doubling an intended triple flip.

Few ever doubted Chen's potential, but a near-legendary series of boot problems -- at one point, the skater told reporters she went through 14 pairs in four months -- limited her performances. After winning bronze at the 2015 U.S. Championships, she faded to eighth place last season.

The troubles seemed to spill over into this season, with mediocre finishes at her fall Grand Prix events, capped by a desultory seventh place at a lesser international competition, Golden Spin of Zagreb, last month.

"It was definitely a struggle with the boots, resulting in some injuries, but I'm very happy I got most of it resolved," Chen said. "I guess I just learned from my past mistakes and I'm gaining more experience.

"It was definitely rough for me during the Grand Prix as well," she continued. "I spent the beginning of the season working on my boot problems. I only started training really hard in June and July."

Tammy Gambill, who trains the skater in Riverside, California, called the boot issue "done."

"I don't want to know about it," Gambill said. "It's something she has to deal with and figure it out. We're not going to use it as an excuse. I tell her, 'You have two pairs, you're ready to go, and if something breaks down, you have your back-up pair.'"

With that in mind, Gambill intensified her student's training sessions in the lead-up to Kansas City. 

"We just kept training a lot of shorts, a lot of longs, a lot of sections," Gambill said. "She got her confidence back with the triple loop, which has always been one of her best jumps. She got the confidence back that she was good, and she could do it."

Performing her own choreography gave Chen another edge.

"At first, she was a little afraid to say she did it herself, because she thought if people knew that, they wouldn't like it," Gambill said. "But it's a magical program. She really feels it. It comes from the heart."

But can Chen weave another four minutes of magic in the ladies free skate Saturday and win the title?

"It's definitely possible," she said. "If I'm able to pull out a terrific free skate, and skate my best, it's really a possibility."

Heading into Kansas City, the buzz about Nagasu, 23, was all about her triple axel, which her coach, Tom Zakrajsek, has enthusiastically shared on social media. But the triple flip-triple toe combination and three Level 4 spins in her short to Chopin's "Nocturne in C-sharp minor" were impressive enough on their own.

"There's a surprise winner so far, but the winner comes from the long program, and I put myself in the game," Nagasu said. "I'm so proud of myself; my flip-toe was like chocolate. We'll see the day after tomorrow."

The 2008 U.S. champion hasn't practiced too many triple axels in Kansas City, and she hasn't landed a fully rotated attempt. But Zakrajsek said they would practice the three-and-a-half revolution jump Friday and decide whether to include it in Nagasu's free skate Saturday.

"Mirai has been training the triple axel and doing it really well in her long program," Zakrajsek said. "If she feels comfortable, and she says yes, then she's going to try it, and I'm going to support her 100 percent."

Wagner gave the audience a heart-stopping moment when she had an awkward take-off on her double axel and barely hung on to the landing. The rest of the program -- especially the triple flip-triple toe combination -- was strong, and the style was pure Wagner: gritty, extroverted and entertaining.

"I am so proud of that program," Wagner said. "I think I'm in a great spot going into that long program, just where I want to be. I went out there and got that triple-triple, and that is something I've been really looking for, so it was a great day."

The three-time U.S. champion and reigning world silver medalist chuckled about her scary double axel.

"I'm looking at it, and I'm amazed I didn't get a waltz jump for that rotation," she said. "The ice is a little bit sticky, and that being such an intense program, and [the double axel] being the final jump in it, I was a little tired."

Another of Zakrajsek's students, 14-year-old Tessa Hong, impressed with an ethereal, near-clean short to "Ave Maria," including a triple lutz-triple toe combination that had the second jump judged under-rotated by the technical panel. She sits fourth with 65.02 points.

Gold stumbled through her fall events, seemingly unable to recover from the disappointment of landing off the podium at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships in Boston. The final embarrassment was a sixth-place finish at Golden Spin of Zagreb last month. So deep was her funk that in late December she left her training home in Los Angeles, where she is coached by Frank Carroll, and returned to her former coach, Alex Ouriashev, in Chicago for two weeks.

The defending champion opened her short to "Assassin's Tango" with a triple lutz-triple toe combination, but missing her triple flip likely sliced more than six points off her score. In the mixed zone, though, she seemed relieved with performance.

"It's definitely not what I've been training, but I think that I can feel a huge improvement as a skater, between [Golden Spin of Zagreb] in December until now," Gold said.