Surprising Chen powers her way to ladies title17-year-old records third-best free skate in U.S. history; Wagner second
The five-year long Ashley Wagner-Gracie Gold era at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships is over, at least temporarily. Karen Chen reigns as U.S. champion.
The diminutive teenager from Fremont, California, was on few people's radars until Thursday night at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, when a superb short program vaulted her to a slim lead over Mirai Nagasu and Wagner.
Chen's free skate Saturday lacked some of the same magic, but it was fast and sure. She hit six triple jumps, including an opening triple lutz-triple toe loop combination, to edge Wagner by roughly half a point in the segment and win the title with 214.22 points. Her only notable flaw was doubling an intended triple salchow.
"The short kind of took a lot of pressure off of me, knowing I had finally skated a really good short," Chen said. "For the long, I tried to stay as confident as possible, with my head held high, and just kept pushing through no matter what happened."
It's an amazing turnaround from the past season and a half. After winning a surprise bronze medal at the 2015 U.S. Championships, a lengthy series of boot problems and injuries contributed to her dropping to eighth in the U.S. last season. She failed to medal at any of her fall events, and her best Grand Prix result this season was sixth place at NHK Trophy in late November.
Chen told reporters she spent the first part of this season working with a new boot company "to work out all the kinks" and had finally grown more comfortable with her equipment.
"Confidence has been one of those things I've struggled with a lot," she said. "I've always had a lot of self-doubt. Going into nationals, I just really focused on the things I can control, and I stopped worrying about all the distractions and everything."
"We worked on her confidence, tried to make her believe she was capable of doing it," Chen's coach, Tammy Gambill, said. "It's always a confidence thing with her, because she can do it. She's strong."
Gambill, who trains Chen in Riverside, California, credited her student's calm and maturity.
"She's never been in this position before, and the way she handled it was as if she was already experienced," Gambill said. "She looked strong out there. She made a double on the salchow instead of a triple but did not let it her affect her at all. She just stepped it up in the program more."
Wagner didn't relinquish gold without a fight. The three-time U.S. champion skated with finesse and emotion to "Exogenesis: Symphony Part 3" by Muse, landing seven triple jumps, including two triple-triple combinations.
The judging panel gave Wagner the nod over Chen in program component scores (PCS), but the technical panel called the second jump in a triple flip-triple toe loop combination under-rotated, and Chen gained higher marks for her spins. Wagner settled for second in the free skate with 140.84 points and won silver with 211.78 points.
The world silver medalist, who won Skate America early this season but dropped to sixth place at Cup of China, told reporters in the mixed zone she was thrilled with her free skate.
"I am so happy with that," Wagner said. "I know that you always want to come away with a win, but my goal from the start of this was to get through nationals, especially coming off of a difficult Grand Prix season. This is just awesome."
The silver medal, Wagner's first in 10 trips to the U.S. championships as a senior lady, may let her play her favorite role -- underdog -- at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, Finland, in March.
"This is perfect for me," she said. "It gives me the opportunity to go in with my head down, and go home and keep working. I know where I lost my points, and I'm so excited."
Mariah Bell, who like Wagner trains under Rafael Arutunian in Lakewood, California, rose from sixth place after the short program to win the bronze medal with a sparkling free skate to music from East of Eden. The 20-year-old stepped out of her first two jumping passes but gained high marks for her other elements, including a triple flip, triple salchow combination, and attractive spins and steps. She finished with 197.92 points.
"It's been the best season of my career, and I didn't want to come here and end lower than what I knew I was capable of," Bell said. "So just to go out and take something I was really stressed about -- in a way that I knew that I could do it, and I wanted to be able to do it -- and to skate like that, I'm really, really proud of what I did."
Nagasu opened her free skate to "The Winner Takes It All" with a strong triple flip-triple toe loop combination but fell on her next jump, a triple lutz, and under-rotated several other jumps. She placed fourth in the free and fourth overall with 194.90 points.
"This isn't the way I wanted it to go, but I think that people are defined by how they react to things," a disappointed Nagasu said in the mixed zone. "Hopefully one of our top skaters will pull out and give me the opportunity to go to Four Continents again."
Caroline Zhang capped a remarkable comeback from hip surgery in March 2015 with a strong performance that included a rare triple loop-triple loop combination, the highest-scoring jump element in the event. She placed fifth in the free skate and fifth overall with 182.82 points.
The troubles continued for Gold, who has failed to recapture her competitive spark this season after a disappointing fourth-place finish at the 2016 World Championships.
The defending champion opened her program to Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe with a triple lutz-triple toe loop combination but popped many other intended triple jumps into doubles to finish ninth in the free skate and sixth overall.
"Obviously, I had a very terrible long program at the national championships," Gold said, later adding, "It's just something about this year. I've been in a funk."
With three U.S. ladies spots up for grabs at the 2017 World Championships, and given Gold's disappointing performances this season, it seems unlikely U.S. Figure Skating's International Selection Committee will supplant one of the top three finishers to nominate Gold for the world team. The skater, though, still had hopes.
"Even though today's skating was subpar, there is not a doubt in my mind this has been a rough season, but I still think I'm one of the best skaters in the United States," she said, later adding, "Given the opportunity, I know I wouldn't let them down, and I would be a very wise pick for the world team."