Ice Network

Helsinki set to host memorable ladies free skate

Scoring system keeps Chen, Wagner in medal position after short program
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Karen Chen and Ashley Wagner are part of a large group of ladies who remain in medal contention entering the free skate at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships. -Getty Images

HELSINKI, Finland - This is the 13th world championships in which figure skating has used the oft-criticized scoring system developed in reaction to the pairs judging controversy at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

Every so often, the system's seemingly mathematical madness makes perfect sense in accomplishing one of its primary goals: keeping more than a few skaters in the running for a medal after the short program at a championship event.

That is exactly what happened here Wednesday in a ladies short program of such overall quality that the top seven finishers received just one negative Grade of Execution (GOE) on their combined 49 elements -- and that was just a blip of -0.3 for Russia's Anna Pogorilaya.

It is what allowed 2016 world silver medalist Ashley Wagner of the United States to say she wasn't in too big a hole after finishing seventh with a clean -- if admittedly slow and cautious -- performance.

Seventh consigns a skater to the penultimate group in the order for the free skate final. In the pre-Salt Lake past, that position screamed "also-ran."

"Today is not at all about placement," Wagner said. "My score has set me up for a great long program. I know I am in fighting distance."

With a score of 69.04, Wagner is just 3.15 points from Gabrielle Daleman of Canada, who currently sits in third place. Her U.S. teammate, Karen Chen, is surprisingly even closer in fifth (69.98) after she managed to follow 1992 Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi's advice to "skate dumb."

"It puts us in the ballgame," said Chen's coach, Tammy Gambill. "It's a great start that should give her a lot of confidence. Fingers crossed."

Yes, reigning world champion Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia is in control as expected, but her short program-winning score of 79.01 put her barely three points ahead of runner-up Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada.

And the difference between Daleman -- whose best previous worlds finish was ninth last year -- and 10th-place Elizabet Tursynbaeva of Kazakhstan is just 6.71 points.

The penalty for one significant mistake in the free skate can be enough to wipe out all or most of such gaps.

So, Friday afternoon's final should be a compelling fight, indeed, with the stakes including not only medals but the spots each country gets in next year's Olympic field based on the final standings at this event.

That Chen is in the mix certainly is unexpected given her disastrous 12th place at last month's Four Continents Championships in South Korea and her practice struggles here in Helsinki -- the latter continuing all the way into the warm-up before her short program.

"She has had a really rough week of practice, so I'm really happy she was able to pull that through," Wagner said. "She is that kind of athlete where you're like, 'How is she going to do this?' and the next moment it's like, 'Oh, she's got it.' I'm glad she is in that head space right now."

After winning the U.S. championships with two sparkling skates in January, Chen saw herself turn into a head case at Four Continents. Another episode in her seemingly endless boot problem saga cluttered a mind that long has tended to be confusedly full at competitions.

And here she was facing a senior worlds debut with the added pressure of trying to help get the third Olympic spot for the U.S. ladies.

Ergo, Yamaguchi's counsel.

Chen, an accomplished student, explained what "skate dumb" meant to her.

"Sometimes I have all these thoughts that dwell in my mind," Chen said. "So I had to work on clearing my mind, just have it go blank and let my body take over.

"I feel [Four Continents] was a wakeup call for me," she continued. "It made me realize I needed to be mentally prepared for competition."

Gambill said Chen was able to shake the Four Continents disappointment almost immediately after returning to California and finding her new boots were ready.

"If she has happy feet, she's a happy kid," Gambill said. "(But) I don't want any more boot excuses."

She and Wagner now have a combined placement one under the maximum to get the three Olympic spots. (The third U.S. entrant, Mariah Bell, is 13th at 61.02 after the short program).

Wagner, 25, conceded that Olympian task has been weighing on her, no matter that this is her seventh world championships. 

"There is a lot of (personal) pressure, and on top of that, everyone is asking, 'What are you going to do about those spots?'" she said.

Her coach, Rafael Arutunian, said she skated "nervous," which accounted for her low GOEs (none above +0.79) on the seven elements. The theatrical Wagner's program to the Annie Lennox song "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" had drawn the day's loudest response from the crowd at Hartwall Arena.

"I agree with the judges," Arutunian said. "The quality was not there."

It seemed almost ironic that an hour later Medvedeva -- who once again skated with surpassing technical quality -- cited Wagner when asked which expressive skaters from the past had most inspired her.

"I can't name anyone from the past," Medvedeva said through a translator. "But I would like to point out Ashley Wagner. She is able to portray any kind of character in the program on the ice. She can be lyrical and she can also be totally different."

The portrayal of a character from the film Moulin Rouge helped Wagner win the world silver medal last year. Come Friday, she will be interpreting decidedly more abstract music from Muse's "Exogenesis: Symphony Part III." But, unlike in the ever-fading past, her conviction that it could take her from seventh to another medal is a real possibility rather than abstract musing.