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Zawadzki powers her way to lead over Czisny

Heads field by 3.10 points; Wagner third, Nagasu fifth, Flatt ninth

Agnes Zawadzki will try to hold off Alissa Czisny, Ashley Wagner and company for the U.S. title.
Agnes Zawadzki will try to hold off Alissa Czisny, Ashley Wagner and company for the U.S. title. (Tom Briglia)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/27/2012) - Agnes Zawadzki, who mulled quitting the sport last summer, instead powered her way to a 3.10-point lead over Alissa Czisny after the ladies short program in San Jose.

The Colorado Springs-based skater grabbed first place by skating big, with huge jumps, good speed and controlled aggression at the U.S. Championships. Her jazzy short opened with a sterling triple toe-triple toe combination -- the only clean triple-triple of the event -- and a soaring triple Lutz. After that, she did not put a foot wrong, earning a partial standing ovation and 66.24 points.

"Everything has finally clicked," said the 17-year-old Zawadzki, who placed fourth at the 2011 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. "It was definitely a big improvement over the Grand Prix season. I think now I'm more mentally trained and more physically trained, I would say."

That hasn't always been the case. Despite a respectable 2010-11 season, including a bronze medal at the 2011 World Junior Figure Skating Championships, the skater felt she lost her desire and some of her love for the sport last spring.

"I just wasn't having fun with it; I wasn't excited to come to the rink every day," said Zawadzki, who began training under Tom Zakrajsek in Colorado Springs in 2008. "It was just hard for me to come into the rink every day and get myself going."

Zawadzki turned to Christy Krall, coach of world champion Patrick Chan, and her former mentor, Chicago-area coach David Santee, for guidance.

"I worked with David before I moved to Colorado to train with Tom," the Chicago-born Zawadzki said. "I trained with him for seven years and I'm definitely comfortable around him. I think he just gives me that sense of relaxation. He's always been a pretty silly guy; he keeps it nice and light before I compete."

Although uncertain of the logistics, Santee was happy to work with Zawadzki again.

"When she talked to me in May, she said she didn't really love skating anymore and she was thinking of quitting," he said. "I told her I would always be in her corner. When I hung up the phone, I thought, 'How is this going to work?' But it's worked out great, because Christy and I communicate all the time."

After disappointing seventh and eighth-place finishes at her two Grand Prix events, Zawadzki slowly found her form.

"I just think it was a building process," Santee said. "She's been through a lot in the last year. I just think we were building toward this. She's maybe the most fit skater in this event. She's 17, and with her talent, the sky is the limit."

"I guess I've been training really well and I feel confident. I have a lot of good run-throughs under my belt," Zawadzki said. "I felt like I could bring them here."

Czisny, the defending champion, was well on her way to a clean and elegant short to "La Vie en Rose," but a messy single Axel proved costly, and she sits second with 63.14 points.

The 24-year-old skater, who trains at the Detroit Skating Club under Jason Dungjen and Yuka Sato, could not remember the last time she missed a double Axel in her short.

"I think I hesitated just a little bit going in to the jump, and usually that doesn't work," Czisny said. "Considering it's worth the least amount of points, it's probably the best one to miss if I'm going to miss something, which I prefer not to do.

"I think [my score] should hold up pretty well. I'm not really worried about that. I come here and do my job and I can't control the outcome."

"Sometimes things are going well, and you try to make something bigger," Dungjen said. "I think that's what happened. Except the Axel, I thought everything tonight was absolutely beautiful to watch."

Both skater and coach said the calf and ankle injury that troubled her at the Grand Prix Final last month was fully healed.

"For me, the short program tonight -- being on my feet -- helped me feel better, especially since at the Grand Prix Final I didn't really feel comfortable on the ice," Czisny said. "Staying on my feet made me feel a lot better going into the final on Saturday."

Ashley Wagner, a two-time U.S. bronze medalist, skated with confidence and attack in her short to music from the Pollack soundtrack, hitting a triple flip-double toe combination, triple loop and three Level 4 spins. She is third with 63.06 points.

"I felt so confident going in to this," Wagner said. "My main goal coming in was to overcome that short program demon. The whole year I've been saying, 'I am so tired of being that "almost girl," with that teeny, tiny mistake holding me back. I was going to do that program, and I did."

Wagner, who moved to the Los Angeles area to train with veteran coach John Nicks last summer, is thriving under Nicks' famous no-nonsense approach.

"I love it," she said. "My dad is a lot like Mr. Nicks; it's his way and that's it. So in the rink, Mr. Nicks basically tells me what I am doing to do, and that's what I do. That's helped my consistency and my confidence."

Caroline Zhang, the 2009 U.S. bronze medalist who fell to 12th last season, rebounded with a solid program featuring a triple loop-triple loop combination, although the second loop was judged under-rotated. She registered 60.18 points for fourth place.

"Loop has always been one of my favorite jumps," Zhang said. "I've been working on [triple-triple] for actually a couple of years, but I didn't focus on putting it into a program until this year, and I'm glad I did it here."

Mirai Nagasu, one of the pre-event favorites, is fifth with 59.02 points after struggling to hold on to the landing of a triple loop in her Tango short.

"I think that when the loop was not good, the spark was gone," Nagasu's coach, Frank Carroll, said. "So the program looked flat, because it's a very saucy, fun, light, amusing program. When she's in that character, it's great. But when it's not, it lacks what the program was designed for."

"I don't know. It was just the spur of the moment," Nagasu said. "I'm just glad I stayed on my feet because that would have cost me a lot more.

"I think I was a little bit puzzled because this hasn't been the way I've been practicing," she said. "I'm glad I got it together for the Lutz, Axel and my other elements."

Both skater and coach thought Nagasu's program component scores (28.85, more than a point lower than Czisny's) were a bit low.

"Well, I was surprised, but I think that they are based on interpretation and being in the character and the performance, and that was not her usual self," Carroll said. "But I think she can do much better in the long program, and that's what we're aiming for: to do a really great long with spark and life."

U.S. silver medalist Rachael Flatt, who won the U.S. title in 2010, is ninth with 52.71 points after singling an intended double Axel.