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Jump-free summer may work to Gao's advantage

Wagner discovers technique; Flatt all fired up

Christina Gao hopes to highlight her maturity and expression in this year's programs.
Christina Gao hopes to highlight her maturity and expression in this year's programs. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(08/28/2011) - While many U.S. ladies are working to perfect their triple-triple combinations, Christina Gao already has.

Gao's triple flip-triple toe has become her calling card, but the 17-year-old's coach, Brian Orser, thinks that this season, his pupil's overall skating will take center stage.

Ironically, he's giving Gao's hip injury -- which took her off the ice for most of July -- some of the credit.

"With the injury, she had to focus on skating skills, expression and speed, even something as simple as smiling, because she's really a shy skater," said Orser, the two-time Olympic silver medalist who trains Gao in Toronto, at U.S. Figure Skating's Champs Camp.

"Here [at Champs Camp's simulated competition], without doing the jumps, she's able to show that she has improved on that and the focus is not all on the triple flip-triple toe. Athletes do that; when I skated, sometimes it was all about the triple Axel."

Gao performed technically scaled-down versions of her short, set to Celine Dion's "To Love You More," and free skate, to Astor Piazzola's "Libertango."

Both programs were choreographed by David Wilson, who has worked with Gao the past few seasons. The skater thinks they will highlight her growth in maturity and expression.

"I really like ["To Love You More] because it's different than anything I've skated to," she said. "It's a song most people know but I don't think it's been skated to a lot.

"The long is intense; it's a cool version [of "Libertango."] I'm [more interpreting] a feeling than a story."

Gao, troubled by pain at the beginning of the summer, was advised by doctors to take a break. When she returned, she avoided jumping and instead polished her choreography and movements.

"I've had a lot of time to do my program without any jumps and really focus on the skating, the expression and the edges," she said.

"This is the first time I've ever been in this position. I've never had an injury with more than a week off. . . I've really had to work on the mental aspect and how I can stay strong. In the end, I think this will be a good thing and I'll be stronger than before."

Orser, who coached Gao to fifth-place finishes at the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, agrees.

"It's been a great lesson for her to know about pacing and to trust her skating," he said. "She was able to use the time to focus on other things, not just coming up with the new technical trick."

When Gao resumed practicing her jumps two weeks ago, she found they all quickly returned.

"I can do all my triples," she said. "I can do everything, I'm just not skating full out here yet."

"Once she got the okay to jump, she eased in and the jumps are all there," Orser said. "She had a huge sigh of relief knowing that after a month off the ice, it is like riding a bike."

In the end, Gao thinks the injury will be little more than a detour.

"Last year I peaked really early and sort of went down from there," said Gao, who placed fourth at the 2011 World Junior Figure Skating Championships after a disappointing short program.

"This season I don't compete until November [at Cup of China], and I've had the injury, so it's sort of keeping me on the right track."

Wagner continues quest for triple-triple

Ashley Wagner, who announced in June she would move to California to train under John Nicks, credits the veteran coach with helping her jump consistency and improving her chances to land an elusive triple-triple combination.

"He really gave me technique because I'm one of those jumpers who jumps based on how something feels," said the 20-year-old Wagner, who won U.S. bronze medals in 2008 and 2010.

"I've never really had technique at all. I've had great coaches in the past who have worked with that, but [Mr. Nicks] finally put his foot down and said, 'No, you're a senior lady. If you want be consistent, you need to have some technique in there somewhere.' So we worked on getting my air position a little bit tighter, my arms in the right spot and getting that check I need."

Wagner put her new-found technique to work at the free skate event at the Glacier Falls Summer Classic in early August, beating out an impressive field including 2010 U.S. novice champion Leah Keiser, who won her senior events at the Liberty Summer Competition in July; training mate Courtney Hicks, the reigning U.S. junior champion; and longtime rivals Mirai Nagasu and Caroline Zhang.

"The ability to land jumps consistently comes down to two or three things, and I've just been accentuating those two or three things," said Nicks, the venerable octogenarian who has coached top U.S. ladies ranging from Tiffany Chin to Sasha Cohen.

"She did win an event someplace, so that's a good result. [Ashley] has a good balance between athleticism and artistry and when you get that, you're usually looking at a successful season."

Firebird brings out fire in Flatt

Rachael Flatt is fired up about her new free skate, choreographed by Lori Nichol to Stravinsky's Firebird.

"It's really hard," Flatt said. "Lori did an amazing job. She put in a lot of difficult transitions. It's a tough program, but I love it."

The 2010 U.S. champion, who has hit triple-triple combinations in competition, hopes to include a triple flip-triple toe in her East of Eden short this season.

For her free, Flatt is targeting a double Axel-triple toe and triple Lutz-half loop-triple loop sequence but thinks handling the transitions and choreography between elements will be just as important.

"[In Firebird], the whole package is a lot more difficult," she said. "It's very dramatic, obviously, which is what the music calls for. It will take a lot of training."

This is Flatt's second time around with Firebird. She performed a free skate to the classic ballet score as a novice.

Flatt, who begins classes at Stanford University in late September, is packing her bags for Palo Alto. In California, she will be coached by the trio of Justin Dillon, Lynn Smith and Sergei Ponomarenko, after years of working with Tom Zakrajsek in Colorado Springs.

"[My new coaches] are going to be focusing a bit more on the program, rather than all the technical aspects of my skating at this point," Flatt said. "They will be focusing a lot more on the components and artistry, which is I think is exactly what I need."

Smith, a former U.S. junior medalist who coached Dillon during his competitive career, agrees that Firebird suits her new pupil to a T.

"The opening makes a great impact, and she seems to keep the intensity throughout the whole program so far from what I've seen," she said. "It's really suitable for her style and it brings out the fire in her, I believe."