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'Almost girl' no more: Wagner snags another title

U.S. champ is first American lady to take ISU senior championship in five years; Zhang wins bronze

Ashley Wagner beat her previous best international score by more than 25 points.
Ashley Wagner beat her previous best international score by more than 25 points. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(02/12/2012) - The "Almost Girl" is starting to rack them up.

Hot on the heels of her first national title, Ashley Wagner has won her first senior international gold and shattered her personal-best free skate score by nearly 18 points.

Along the way, she became the first U.S. lady to win a senior ISU championship event since Kimmie Meissner's win at the 2007 Four Continents Figure Skating Championship.

"To pull off these numbers, I think, is huge, not only for my career but to give everyone an idea of what I'm capable of going into worlds," Wagner, 20, said.

Mao Asada, the two-time Japanese world champion, settled for silver after under-rotating her opening triple Axel. Caroline Zhang capped a comeback season by winning bronze with her highest total score since 2007.

But the night belonged to Wagner's Black Swan free, the transcendent program that has helped lift her out of the ranks of the just-misses and into the spotlight.

After opening with a solid triple flip-double toe-double toe, Wagner made her only small misstep of the night, reducing an intended double Axel-triple toe loop to a double-double.

"The Axel was a little bit screwy, and so I decided to do a double and not waste the energy to pull off the triple toe," she said. "That way I would have energy for the rest of the program, and as sky high as we are [in Colorado Springs], that's kind of important to be able to do."

Everything else worked like clockwork, with not a negative GOE [grade of execution] in sight for any of Wagner's elements. All of the touches of Odette, the soft white swan, and Odile, the strong black swan, created by choreographer Phillip Mills, were there -- the bourrée glide, the staccato arm movements during the spiral. She hit six clean triple and three Level 4 spins along the way, earning 128.34 points for an astounding 192.41 total, the highest score recorded by a lady this season.

Most impressive -- and most promising for the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships, held in Nice, France, at the end of March -- was that Wagner's program components were slightly higher than Asada's: 61.73 vs. 61.42.

"I think being U.S. champion, I'm not oblivious to the fact that helps my PC scores," Wagner said. "We completely reworked the second half of the long program after NHK Trophy last fall, and there are transitions galore.

"I also credit those scores to how I performed in practice as well. I think I've been on all week. Judges see that and that kind of helps me out when I go out and compete."

Wagner credits her move to Southern California this summer, to work with veteran coach John Nicks and Mills, for her emergence as a world medal hopeful.

"With Black Swan, Phillip and I wanted to create something very authentic, and together with Mr. Nicks' awareness of the audience and performance technique, it kind of creates the perfect performance package," she said.

Nicks, who coached Sasha Cohen to Olympic silver in 2006, beamed as Wagner addressed reporters in the mixed zone.

"She's gained confidence throughout the year," said the 82-year-old, who has coached top U.S. ladies since the days of Peggy Fleming. "To date, Ashley Wagner has succeeded my expectations and will continue to do so."

It was a solid night for Asada, whose light, lyrical skating showed to good effect in her free to "Liebestraum."

The Japanese champion opened with a triple Axel that was judged under-rotated by the technical panel and also two-footed the landing of her triple Lutz. Other than that, she went clean, although she doubled an intended triple Salchow. Asada earned 124.37 points and ended with 188.62, some 3.79 points behind Wagner.

"Tonight, my goal was to land the triple Axel, and I was happy to do that, but I lost some points on the quality of my jumps," Asada, 21, said. "At worlds, I would like to land triple Axel in both by short and free, and fix the small mistakes in my jumps in the free skate."

Zhang, fourth at the 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships two weeks ago, had her finest performance in recent memory to a Dvorak cello concerto.

The 18-year-old Californian, who trains in Artesia under Peter Oppegard and Karen Kwan-Oppegard, opened with a triple flip-double toe, followed by a triple Lutz and double Axel. She landed three more clean triples and gained Level 4 on all three of her spins. Her score, 117.44, put her third in the free, and she placed third overall with 176.18.

"I'm definitely happy to be getting back on the right track again, so hopefully I can build on this and get a higher score next year," Zhang said.

"I have been doing clean double run-throughs of my program at home so it was something I felt confident in doing," she said. "I had faith I would be able to go out there, and muscle memory and technique would be able to carry me through the rest of the program."

U.S. bronze medalist Agnes Zawadzki improved on her free skate performance at the 2012 U.S. Championships, skating to a season's best 104.36 for the free skate and 157.23 overall.

The 17-year-old, who trains here in Colorado Springs under Christy Krall, faltered on the landing of her opening double Axel and doubled two intended triple jumps, but landed three solid triples, including a huge Lutz.

"I'm a little disappointed in myself," Zawadzki said. "It was kind of bittersweet because I got a personal best, but it wasn't the way that I wanted it to be.

"It's different in practice than in competition, and I just think I have to work on bringing those two together for next season."