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Czisny in lead; maturity trumps youth in ladies short

Flatt, Zhang deliver solid programs; Nagasu is sixth

Alissa Czisny enters the ladies free skate in first place at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Championships.
Alissa Czisny enters the ladies free skate in first place at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Championships. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/23/2009) - Alissa Czisny has too often come up short in big moments, her swan-like movements betrayed by jumping disasters.

The disappointment led her, briefly, to quitting the sport after a meltdown at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

"Last year didn't go that well, obviously," Czisny said of her ninth-place finish. "After nationals, I took some time off. I didn't really know if I wanted to still skate.

"I decided to continue and just enjoy skating, rather than focus on the outcome."

Good choice. On Saturday, the 21-year-old college student will enter the ladies' free skate with a 5.56-point lead over a field including the last two world junior champions and the defending U.S. champion, all of whom were in second or third grade when Czisny first competed as a senior in 2002.

Performing, appropriately, to Saint-Saens' "The Swan," the Detroit-based skater executed a clean, breathtakingly elegant program that drew a sustained standing ovation from the crowd, the only one of the night.

Her jumps -- a triple Lutz combination, plus a triple flip and double Axel -- were secure, although her flip gained an ambiguous "warning" of an outside take-off edge. The rest of her program was in a class by itself.

"No one can spin like that," Brian Boitano said. "No one is as beautiful as she is. I can't think of another skater who can do things better."

Boitano and his old coach, Linda Leaver, have been mentoring Czisny with the approval of her primary coach, Julianne Berlin. The skater spent four weeks with them preparing for this season, two in Detroit and two in Sun Valley. The goal is not only to strengthen Czisny's mindset, but as Boitano put it, to "break down" her jumps.

"I think they've really helped me fix my jumps," Czisny said. "Brian just tells me what he did and what worked for him. That's really helped me to compete."

According to Boitano, who won the 1988 Olympic "Battle of the Brians" with a jumping arsenal second to none in its day, jumping is a game of millimeters.

"It's about being in the moment and doing what you are supposed to be doing," he said. "A lot of jumping is tiny in itself. I can tell once Alissa goes into a [preparation] back crossover whether it will be a good jump or not."

In eight trips to the U.S. Championships as a senior, Czisny has never led after the short before, but Boitano thinks this time her resolve may hold.

"Deep down she has that fight," he said. "She wants to win, she wants to do well."

World junior champion Rachael Flatt sits second after a solid, but conservative program that lacked her usual triple flip-triple toe loop combination.

"I think it was pretty good," Flatt, 16, said. "I have been training the triple-triple in practice and it's been going well.

"My coaches [Tom Zakrajsek and Becky Calvin] and I had discussed my [combination] before I competed, and we decided that as long as I had a proper landing on the triple flip I would go for it. It didn't happen, which I'm okay with, but I definitely want to do it in the long."

The Colorado Springs-based Flatt enters the free skate with 60.19 points.

Caroline Zhang, the 2007 world junior champion, grabbed third place with a lyrical outing to music from Minkus' "La Bayadere." Her performance earned 58.91 points.

Zhang's triples, including an opening triple flip-triple toe combination, looked strong, but she faltered a bit on her double Axel and wobbled on her spiral sequence.

"I think my short program went pretty well," Zhang, 15, said. "There were a lot of things I could have done better but overall it was a better performance than at my Grand Prix [events].

"I could have done better on the double Axel and I think I should have held the layback longer, because I only got a Level 2."

Like Czisny and Flatt, Zhang is trying hard not to think about whether or not she will qualify for one of the two spots on the U.S. world team for upcoming ISU World Figure Skating Championships, to be held in Los Angeles this March.

"I'm not thinking about the placement," she said. "I just want to do the best I can in the long. I guess it's just anyone's game."

Defending champion Mirai Nagasu admitted she probably took herself out of that game with a flawed performance including a mistimed triple Lutz and a down graded double Axel. She sits in sixth place with 54.79 points.

"I've been practicing on an Olympic-sized rink, and I got too close to the wall [on the Lutz]," the 15-year-old Californian said.

The teen, who admitted she was hit hard by puberty -- including a three or four inch growth spurt and some weight gain -- said she is already looking forward to next season.

"I know I was lazy in the summer; I know I have to train a lot harder next year. The competition is really tough here right now. I'm not giving up yet, I want to make a big finish [with my long program]. Next season I'll be 16, and that will be a good year for me. I want to do way, way, way better."

Brittney Rizo and Katrina Hacker are fourth and fifth, respectively. Both skaters train at the Skating Club of Boston under Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson.