Wagner adds new varnish, triple-triple to short

Gao manages Harvard, skating; Zawadzki builds her confidence

U.S. champion Ashley Wagner, who will skate to <i>The Red Violin</i> and <i>Samson and Delilah</i> in 2012-13, smiles with Adam Rippon.
U.S. champion Ashley Wagner, who will skate to The Red Violin and Samson and Delilah in 2012-13, smiles with Adam Rippon. (Lynn Rutherford)


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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(08/23/2012) - Coming off her best-ever season, Ashley Wagner wrestled with a common dilemma of champions: How can I top myself?

"My programs last year (a short to Pollack and free skate to Black Swan) were exactly what I needed," the U.S. champion said. "I knew it was going to be tough. I demanded something great, and I feel the two pieces we come here [to Champs Camp] with are that."

Wagner and coach John Nicks again turned to Phillip Mills, who choreographed last season's programs, and costume designer Jan Longmire, creator of Wagner's Black Swan dress of layered black, "molting" petals.

"I'm a firm believer in keeping the team together, if people are doing things that are working for you," Wagner said. "Last year, both programs were very well received, so I sat down and really thought about what I wanted out of my new programs.

"For the short, I decided to go with Red Violin because I thrive on intensity, and this is music that I feel picks up on all my strengths."

John Corigliano's soundtrack from the 1999 film tracing the fortunes of owners of a 400-year-old violin was most famously used by Michelle Kwan for her 1999-2000 free skate.

"Now I think I can handle [the music's] intensity, whereas before I think it intimidated me a little more," Wagner said. "It's very much me; I get to draw on those powerful emotions, and I hope I can bring a crowd in with it."

Wagner plans a triple flip-triple toe in the program, something she calls "a necessity."

"If you don't have a triple-triple in your short program, you end up in eighth place at worlds, like I did," she said. (Wagner pulled up to fourth after a third-place free skate.) "I felt like last season, I didn't have the mental groundwork with it; as soon as it got to the program, I faltered. This season I want to do it in competition the way I do in practice and warm-up."

Selecting her free skate music was even tougher. Wagner mulled over the choices for two months before landing on Camille Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah, based on the biblical story of love and betrayal.

"I was going to use Red Violin as the long, but then I realized it depressed me too much," she said. "And then I was going to skate to Snow White and the Huntsman. So many different options.

"Finally, we decided on Samson and Delilah. I was saving it for my Olympic program, but then I realized Joannie [Rochette] skated to it, and after all she has been through, she owned it. So I figured this was the year. I get to be Delilah, who has good and bad sides. I feel with all of my long programs, I end up being a bit of a psychopath."

Christina Gao arrived in Champs Camp in good form, in keeping with her solid showing at the Cranberry Open earlier this month. Impressive, considering the 18-year-old -- who begins her freshman year at Harvard University a week or so from now -- wasn't sure she would compete this season.

"After junior worlds [where she placed seventh], I had a kind of tough couple of months because I was deciding between school and skating," she said. "I came fifth at nationals three years in a row and kind of lost my motivation."

Gao left Toronto, where she had trained for several seasons under Brian Orser, and returned home to Ohio. Still uncertain of her future, she visited Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson at the Skating Club of Boston during a June trip to visit Harvard.

"The way they train, their work ethic, is something I love," she said. "Everyone works really hard there, because their motto is, 'At competitions, you can only control what you do.'"

"She came for a week, and then she went home, and then she came back a few weeks later and got a new short," Mitchell said. "We re-worked her long [to Astor Piazzola's "Libertango"] a little bit, and then she went home again. We kept in touch, we kind of told her what to do, and then she came back two weeks ago for good."

The short Mitchell gave Gao is set to "Close without Touching" by Kostia, and it has a very personal story attached.

"Mark asked me, 'What have you been close to, but never touched?' and I was like, 'The medal podium at nationals, for three years in a row,'" Gao said. "So basically my short is a journey through that. In the beginning I'm walking towards it, but I don't touch it, and I go back.

"As I skate, there are the happy moments, not-so-good moments -- my footwork [represents] a tough moment -- and in the end, I finally grab what I want, which hopefully will happen this season too."

Mitchell is pleased with her progress so far.

"I feel like she didn't skate that much in the spring; she was on the ice but not really training, and our whole goal here was to get through the programs and then work on the rest," he said. "She can land all the jumps, and that was phase one. Now we're moving into phase two."

Known for her consistent triple flip-triple toe, by design, Gao did not try the difficult combination here.

"Her programs are a building base; we want to build strength and stamina, and that will come only from a lot of run-throughs," Mitchell said. "Competing at Cranberry was last-minute, and she was further ahead than we thought. She did all the jumps in the short; in the long, she fell on a triple Salchow, but I think that's pretty good. Now we have to get the levels up there and start working on the programs."

Combining Harvard with the travel and intense training of elite figure skating competition, most recently done by 2007 U.S. silver medalist Emily Hughes, is a tall order.

"Harvard is Harvard; it's not easy," said Mitchell, who also coached Hughes. "We've tried it before and it's tough to get the schedule to work right, so hopefully her schedule will be workable."

Gao welcomes the challenge.

"People say, 'It's so hard, you will never be able to do it,' but I actually think it will be a really good thing, because it kind of provides a distraction and will keep me busy," she said. "I'm planning on taking pretty easy courses this fall so I won't be too overwhelmed. Usually when I'm busy, I'm better at everything I do."

Like Gao, Agnes Zawadzki is a new college freshman: Next week, she starts at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (UCCS), where she is enrolled in three classes.

"I like to have that balance between school and skating; if there is too much school, or too much skating, it doesn't work for me," said the 18-year-old, who trains under Christy Krall in Colorado Springs and also works with Chicago-based David Santee.

The U.S. bronze medalist was sidelined the month of June with a sprained SI (sacroiliac) joint, which temporarily derailed her plans to train a triple Lutz-triple toe for her new short program, choreographed by David Wilson to music from the Sex and the City 2 soundtrack.

"It's Middle Eastern, and I've always wanted to do Middle Eastern," Zawadzki said. "I didn't see the movie until a couple of weeks ago, but I guess I'm trying to play Carrie when she is in Abu Dhabi riding camels, having fun on the desert."

The athletic skater, whose triple Lutz ranks as one of the sport's highest, added that her main goal was to regain the consistency she had as a junior. She seemed to be on her way at the 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where she won the short before placing seventh in the free.

"I feel like I'm in a lot better place than I was last year this time," Zawadzki said. "My mental side is better. I learned that no matter what, I have to get stronger in that, because I feel that is what set me back in my long program at nationals.

"I need to work on my confidence. I have a tendency to self-doubt myself in competition. It's a lot different than in practices ... I have to get that 'no matter what, pull in' and 'no matter what, land it' mindset."