Wagner talked the talk, now walks as U.S. champ

Czisny falters on triple Lutz but takes silver; Zawadzki settles for bronze

Now a national champion, Ashley Wagner hopes to help the U.S. get its third worlds spot back.
Now a national champion, Ashley Wagner hopes to help the U.S. get its third worlds spot back. (Jay Adeff)


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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(01/29/2012) - The "Almost Girl" has arrived.

Ashley Wagner, who gave herself that nickname after a string of just-miss finishes at the U.S. figure skating championships, won her first U.S. title with an imperfect, but still impressive performance to music from The Black Swan.

"I'm in shock," the 20-year-old skater said. "It hasn't hit me yet. I want to go give my mom and my brother a hug. I've sacrificed a lot, and they've been on the entire trip with me." Defending champion Alissa Czisny had an off night, falling on a downgraded triple Lutz and reducing an intended triple toe to a double at the U.S. Championships. Agnes Zawadzki, who led after the short, fell to seventh place in the free skate and settled for bronze.

There have been many "almosts" in Wagner's senior career. In 2008, she won bronze and competed at her first world championships, placing 16th. The following year, she almost qualified again, but a disastrous short put her fourth. In 2010, she almost qualified for the 2010 Olympics, but a fall on a triple Lutz derailed her hopes.

This time around, the native Washingtonian would not be denied. In an interview last month, she told, "It's my nationals to lose." The brash assertion came true.

"Well I'm really glad I did it and backed it up, because I would have looked like such a horrible person," she said. "It's not that I'm being cocky; I'm just saying what everyone else is thinking. No one goes into nationals saying, 'I don't want to be national champion.' Why not say what you think, and not put on an act?"

In her free skate, Wagner delivered Philip Mills' intricate and balletic choreography with strength tempered by grace, opening with a relaxed triple flip-double toe-double toe combination that earned 9.10 points. Although several of her other jumps had slightly imperfect landings, her only major mistake was popping a triple Salchow into a single. She won the free with 123.96 points and ended with 187.02, outpacing the field by seven points.

"I think that tonight wasn't my best night, but it was solid and it was what I needed to do to come out on top," Wagner said. "I just went out there and trusted every jump I went into, except the Salchow. The fact that I got the double Axel-triple toe out, I'm pleased with that."

Wagner attributed her U.S. title to changing coaches this summer. The skater left Priscilla Hill in Delaware and moved to Los Angeles to train with venerable John Nicks, who has coached top U.S. ladies ranging from Peggy Fleming to Tiffany Chin to Sasha Cohen.

"This is confirmation that I made the right decision and I did what I needed to do," she said. "I'm ecstatic."

The evening wasn't as successful for Czisny, the Grand Prix Finalist whom many expected to glide gracefully to her third title.

The 24-year-old from Detroit fell on a downgraded triple Lutz, reduced an intended double Axel-triple toe to a double-double and faltered on several landings. Still, she executed a triple flip and two triple loops, one as part of a three-jump combination, and her spins were lovely as ever. Her 116.86 points put her second in the free skate, and she finished with 180 points.

"It wasn't my best performance, but I kept fighting through it and I guess I'm satisfied with the result because I never gave up," Czisny said.

Jason Dungjen, who with wife Yuka Sato coaches Czisny at the Detroit Skating Club, said that although his skater has healed from a left calf and ankle injury sustained during the Grand Prix Final last month, effects linger.

"It goes back to the injury from the Grand Prix Final; it happens sometimes," Dungjen said. "Some doubts kind of lingered. At the end of the day, she did enough to move on. That's what really counts. Worlds is the biggest prize."

Zawadzki, who placed fourth at the U.S. Championships last season, was unable to duplicate the confidence and attack she showed in the short, and after a strong opening featuring a triple toe-double Axel combination and triple flip, she fell twice and faltered on several other jumps. She placed seventh in the free and third overall.

"Tonight was not the best, but I'm happy with the way I started my program," she said. "I'm a little disappointed with the second half of [the program], but I'm happy with result. It's one better than last year, and I'm pleased with the overall competition."

The 17-year-old, who trains under Christy Krall in Colorado Springs and also works David Santee, said she rushed some of her elements.

"I felt really good into the ice on the first two jumps and then I think I started getting a little ahead of myself instead of staying the present," Zawadzki said. "I've had some good programs, so it's just a little frustrating when you train it well and then do something like that."

A fitter and faster Caroline Zhang made a big leap up the standings, climbing from 12th last season to fourth. The Californian, who is coached by Peter Oppegard and Karen Kwan-Oppegard in Artesia, landed a triple Lutz combination; triple flip combination; and two triple loops en route to third place in the free and 173.19 points overall.

For the third consecutive season, Christina Gao placed fifth after reeling off an opening triple flip-triple toe and four other triples in her Tango free skate. The 17-year-old, who trains in Toronto under Brian Orser, was also fifth in the free and ended with 166.36 points.

2010 U.S. champion Rachael Flatt, who struggled with injuries in the lead-up to the event, had a respectable showing to Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, landing five triple jumps and taking fourth in the free and sixth overall.

"That was the most relaxed I've been all season going into a program," the Stanford University freshman said. "I had an amazing time. Even though it wasn't my best skate ever, it felt like it was because it's been a rather tumultuous season emotionally and with school and stuff."

2008 U.S. champion Mirai Nagasu fell twice and popped another triple in her Spartacus program, placing eighth in the free and seventh overall.

The evening's final word came from Wagner, the new queen of U.S. figure skating.

"I think it's crucial we gain back three spots at worlds this season," she said. "I was on the [2008] team that lost the spot. I really would like to be on the team that gains that spot back. I think it would be nice to tie that back up and correct my mistakes.

"It's time the U.S. really makes a claim in ladies figure skating. I think we have the talent here; we just need to go out and put consistent programs out there with triple-triples."