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Leng captures junior ladies title

Kawamura, Gao fill in second and third place, respectively

The junior ladies podium at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
The junior ladies podium at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships. (Paul Harvath)

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By Becca Staed, special to icenetwork.com
(01/22/2009) - The underdogs owned the junior ladies free skate Wednesday night, though somewhat of a spill fest, after the familiar faces of Junior Grand Prix Final qualifier Amanda Dobbs and reigning novice champion Marissa Secundy were unsuccessful in regaining ground following sub-par short programs, finishing seventh and 12th, respectively.

At the top of the podium was the unassuming, giggly trio of gold medalist DeeDee Leng, silver medalist Ellie Kawamura and Christina Gao in third, each of whom flew under the radar in recent years by either failing to qualify for U.S. Championships or settling at the bottom of her field.

"It's exciting to win, but being under the radar made it feel like it was anyone's game, so you just do your best without any expectations," Leng said.

The three, who are friends both on-and-off the ice, were just happy to be there, and thrilled that, after winning the event, they could revel in the glory together. When asked what their plans following the event were, all three burst into giggles and said, "Party!"

"Our goal tonight is to pull an all-nighter," Leng said.

Skating dead last, Leng knew the opportunity was there for her to grab the lead, but she didn't watch her competition, instead paced back and forth backstage with headphones on.

"I don't watch because if someone lands something, while I am happy for the skater, I then think, 'Oh I have got to land all my jumps,' and tense up," she said.

Though loose throughout her free skate to Borodin's "Polovtsian Dance," Leng fell on both her triple Lutz and triple Salchow, and landed three more triples and five doubles. She singled a planned double loop in combination.

She finished the segment in third place with 78.92 points, benefiting from a short program lead that gave her 132.49 total points and the gold medal.

"Not my best tonight, but I had a great time," Leng said. "It's fun competing against these great skaters."

Kawamura won the free skate with 79.43 points, netting 131.25 overall and second place. Coach Tammy Gambill, who also trains Dobbs, cited "mental toughness" as the difference between her star pupils.

"The biggest difference I see in [Ellie] is her mental strength," said Gambill. "She's gotten her triples this year, and she is focused on staying on track and keeping her focus when it counts."

En route to silver, Kawamura also fell twice -- on the triple Lutz and triple Salchow -- but landed four doubles, including two double Axels, and a triple toe. Every spin in her 101 Dalmations free skate received a Level 4.

"I am hoping for a Junior Grand Prix assignment and to get my triples more consistent to go on to triple-triples next year," Kawamura said.

With 128.69 points, third place went to Gao, who finished 12th as a novice last year.

"I didn't expect a medal," Gao said. "It just happened. I am happy. It's a lot better than last year. Mentally, I got a lot stronger, and I was much more prepared this year than I was last year."

Gao finished second in the free skate, which she performed to "Paquita," accruing 79.24 points for third.

She fell three times throughout, quickly picking herself and regaining composure each time, and landed four triples -- two Salchows and two toe loops -- and two double toe loops. All of her spins also earned Level 4s.

"I just had to forget about the falls," Gao said. "I couldn't do anything about it, so I just focused on the next thing." Fourth place went to Kristiene Gong, who collected 126.17 points in spite of a two-year gap in her competitive career, during which time she'd moved to China with her family.