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Leng leads surprising group on top of junior ladies

Favorites stumble; Kawamura, Gao, Gong sit 2-3-4 after SP

DeeDee Leng leads the junior ladies with 53.57 points after Monday night.
DeeDee Leng leads the junior ladies with 53.57 points after Monday night. (Michelle Harvath)

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By Mickey Brown, special to icenetwork.com
(01/19/2009) - The big names faltered in Monday's junior ladies short program at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Cleveland, allowing some lesser-known skaters to plant themselves on top of the standings.

Amanda Dobbs, who qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final this season, and reigning U.S. novice champion Marissa Secundy both missed jumps in their programs and sit seventh and ninth, respectively.

The leader is DeeDee Leng, whose controlled, methodical performance of her "Capriccio Espagnol" program netted her 53.57 points. In second place is Ellie Kawamura with a score of 51.82, and Christina Gao is third with 49.45 points.

It's safe to say that all three of those skaters underachieved last season. Leng missed competing at the U.S. Championships after finishing fifth at the Midwestern Sectional Championships; Kawamura, after winning both her regional and sectional championships, placed eighth in the junior division at the U.S. Championships; and Gao placed 12th at the U.S. Championships -- at the novice level.

Leng landed both of her triples -- her opening Lutz and the ensuing Salchow, which was done in combination with a double toe. Her double Axel was strong as well, receiving a 1.0 Grade of Execution (GOE).

After placing fourth at the novice level in 2007, Leng said that failing to qualify for last year's U.S. Championships was like "an alarm that there were some things I needed to work on." She credits her improvement -- especially in the areas of choreography, spins and jump consistency -- to the work her coach Maria Jezak-Athey has done with her.

This is Kawamura's third trip to the U.S. Championships, and she's hoping it's the most enjoyable one. Before finishing eighth last season, she placed fifth in novice two years ago.

"I think this was the first year I was really ready," Kawamura said. "I tried to enjoy myself, to perform to the audience."

Kawamura started her "Libertango" short program with a triple Lutz, followed by a triple toe-double toe combination. She put her hand down and two-footed the landing of her double Axel, but she made up for it by posting the highest program components score in the segment.

"My choreographer, Braden [Overett], helps me express my feelings," Kawamura said. "He wants me to play with the audience."

Gao performed to "Liza's Dance" from the Stepping Out soundtrack. She nailed both of her triples -- her opening triple Lutz (0.86 GOE) and her triple toe-double toe combination (1.0 GOE). Her lone error came on her double Axel, on which she turned out of the landing.

The music is a change for Gao, who usually skates to classical pieces. Her choreographer, Teresa McKendry, wanted to show a different side of her, so she chose something jazzier.

What's Gao's strategy for Tuesday's free skate?

"Don't think too much," she said.

Dobbs fell on the front end of her triple toe-triple toe combination, while Secundy popped her opening triple Lutz. They scored 43.21 and 42.28 points, respectively.

Kristiene Gong is in fourth place, just 0.24 points behind Gao.