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Nagasu hopes new coaches mean fresh start

Gold going playful, sophisticated with new programs; Flatt welcomes more forgiving class schedule

Mirai Nagasu and new coach Wendy Olson have focused on improving the skater's endurance.
Mirai Nagasu and new coach Wendy Olson have focused on improving the skater's endurance. (Lynn Rutherford)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(08/27/2012) - Since changing her training situation this spring, Mirai Nagasu had been logging fewer miles on the road and more hours in the gym.

Last season, the 2008 U.S. champion and her mother, Ikuko, made the two-hour drive from their home in the Los Angeles area to Frank Carroll's training center in Cathedral City, near Palm Springs, twice a day several times a week. Nagasu also worked with coaches in Lake Arrowhead and Artesia, and occasionally skated on her own at a rink in Pasadena.

Now, she's training under Wendy Olson and Amy Evidente, at a Los Angeles rink just 30 minutes from home.

"After nationals last year, I took a lot of time off and thought about what I wanted to change," said the 19-year-old Nagasu, who placed seventh at the 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. "The main thing that struck hard was the drive and how tiring it was. To make it all the time didn't feel it was well worth my time. I decided I wanted to make a change. Even though Frank and I worked really well, a lot of distractions came in the way.

"I wanted to start fresh again, and I decided going to a rink close to my house would be a better idea. I've been in the gym way more; four [extra] hours a day makes a big difference. You might not know it, but just sitting there in the car takes a big toll on the body, even if you're not burning any calories. I think it's been helpful to me to get out of the car and hit the gym."

Olson, who also coaches 2012 U.S. novice bronze medalist Spencer Howe, handles most of the on-ice training, while Evidente oversees Nagasu's off-ice work and nutrition planning and works with her on-ice, as well.

"It's been going very well," Olson said. "We've just added the off-ice [training], and she's warming up before she skates. We're working on cleaning up the jumps a bit more, getting her legs a little bit tighter, and training the program and doing more endurance [training], because I didn't think she did enough endurance before."

Nagasu, who will compete at the Cup of China, has two new programs: a short to Benny Goodman's "Downhill Special" and a free to "Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78" by Camille Saint-Saëns. Both were choreographed by Susan Austin, who worked with the skater earlier in her career, with Bebe Liang assisting with the footwork sequences.

"[My free skate] is about hope," Nagasu said. "It starts out slow, with a soft beginning, and builds up to a happy and victorious ending. I think the music has the power to raise the audience off its feet and, hopefully, I'll be able to skate the same way."

U.S. junior champion Gracie Gold is stepping up to the senior circuit this season, with assignments at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic (Sept. 12-16), Skate Canada and the Rostelecom Cup. Coach Alexander Ouriashev thinks she is more than equal to the challenge.

"I am very confident," he said. "We're working on new spins, [including] spins with illusions, and she's doing 'Rippon' triple Lutz (with both arms overhead), which is very good for a lady, and the triple flip-triple Salchow [sequence], new for ladies. I am very happy with everything. We are in good shape now, months before her Grand Prix."

Choreographer Scott Brown created two contrasting programs: a fun short to selections from Hernando's Hideaway and a more emotionally deep free to the Life is Beautiful soundtrack.

"We gave her two different concepts, from being very playful in the short to more sophisticated and mature in the free," Brown said. "The jumps have been there, she can also improve [her] overall skating skills, and spins can always be faster."

Gold is working to keep the cool demeanor that served her well at the 2012 World Junior Figure Skating Championships, where she won silver, and the 2012 World Team Trophy.

"I'm just skating for myself -- I try to think of it more as excitement and less [as] pressure, because really the only pressure that I have comes from me," she said. "Other people's pressure doesn't matter."

Rachael Flatt, the 2010 U.S. champion who placed sixth at the 2012 U.S. Championships, is taking on a new role: choreographer. She and coach Justin Dillon created her new short program to an Astor Piazzolla Tango, "Contrabajissimo." (Flatt is keeping her 2011-12 free to Firebird.) "I goofed around on the choreography with Justin -- originally, we picked it as show piece -- and Justin was like, 'This has to be your short,' " the 20-year-old said. "We came up with something spectacular, really fun and very different than what I've done in the past."

"It's the best she has ever looked in a program," Dillon said. "It's a different style, it brings a fresh perspective to Tango ... I really hope that she performs it with all of the jumps and the spins and choreography and speed, and goes out and brings the house down at Skate America."

Flatt, soon to begin her sophomore year at Stanford University, took the lessons she learned combining college and skating last season into her planning for the fall.

"I'm putting together nice schedules now," she said. "Fall quarter, freshman year was obviously really tough. Adjusting to college life is difficult to begin with, but on top of that, there was switching to new coaches -- whom I love -- and adjusting to the Bay Area traffic. Now I can go to the rink when I'm actually awake, not at 6:00 a.m. after I've spent all night coding for some engineering class."

Flatt plans to skate in San Jose every morning, with a few trips a week to Oakland in the afternoon.

"My first class every day this upcoming quarter is at 10:00 a.m., so I get to sleep in until 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning, and then head down and train," she said. "I'm excited I will have a sleep schedule that resembles something normal."

Flatt took time off after the U.S. championships to heal up from some nagging injuries, including tendonitis in both ankles to the point where, as she said, "I could hardly stand to be in my skates for more than five minutes, and, obviously, training for five minutes a day doesn't work." Reconstructed boots helped solve the problem.

Dillon, who coaches Flatt with Lynn Smith, thinks his skater is in a good place entering the season.

"She's such a tough exterior kid. [Last season] she was like, 'I'm bigger than this, I can take on this challenge,' and I think now that she's found a comfort level with her coaching situation, her environment, figuring out her schedule and being a great student, she's just enjoying every minute," he said.

Caroline Zhang plans to keep her short to the "Rushing Wings of Dawn" as well as her favorite combination, triple loop-triple loop.

"I love triple loop, and doing it in a combo is a lot of fun to practice," the 19-year-old said after she stepped off the ice at Champs Camp. "I did it today, and I'm happy."

After a 12th-place showing at the 2011 U.S. Championships, Zhang roared back last season, coming in fourth at the 2012 U.S. Championships and earning bronze at the Four Continents Championships. This year, she wants to build on the momentum.

"I just want to get out there and prove I'm still fighting for a spot," she said. "[The results] definitely gave me motivation to keep training, because it shows me I have a shot and motivates me for the next couple of years to do my best ... I had some technique issues that needed to be worked out, that gave me a lot of inconsistency in my jumps, but I think that's improving."

Zhang will compete Sept. 27-29 at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Obertsdorf, Germany, armed with a new free skate choreographed by David Wilson to "Nessun Dorma." From there, she goes on to Skate Canada and the Rostelecom Cup.

"I've been working with David for a few years now -- he's an amazing choreographer, and he helps incorporate my skating skills into the program," she said. "I will be adding the triple Salchow back into the long program this year. It's been a problem jump for a couple of years, and I didn't include it last season because I was focusing on the triple loop-triple loop and the other jumps."

Ironically, it's Zhang's spins -- including her famous "pearl" spin -- that are causing some challenges.

"She got some exquisite numbers from David again," said Peter Oppegard, who with wife Karen Kwan-Oppegard trains the skater in Artesia, Calif. "She had the short re-worked, to fold in the triple loop-triple loop better and change the footwork to [satisfy] the rules. She's working to get the endurance to perform the new free skate up to its ability, and the early signs [are] I like it very much.

"She has had some back issues -- she has some beautiful new spins in the program -- but we might take a few positions out to save her back a little bit here [at Champs Camp]. We definitely want everything in for Oberstdorf; we're going to push hard for that one."

Recovering from hip surgery in early June, Alissa Czisny didn't perform her programs at Champs Camp, but she did take part in the meetings and team-building exercise.

"I'm at week 11 [after surgery]. I get back on the ice next week," Czisny said. "Last week I just started doing things like ballet, running and agility stuff. Two weeks ago I started stretching again. It's coming back fast, [but] it's still a long process. I just have to make sure I don't push anything ... We'll start with figures, stroking and spins, and jumping after that."

The two-time U.S. champion is scheduled to compete at the NHK Trophy, Nov. 23-25, a date she hopes to keep.

"We'll see how fast I can get back," she said. "That's my goal. I'm thinking of keeping one of my programs, and then we have another one set up ready to choreograph."

The injury, a torn left labrum, wasn't diagnosed until after the 2012 World Championships, where Czisny placed 22nd.

"The kind of injury it was, it doesn't hurt until it's way too late," she said. "As far as I can figure out, it was bothering me last fall, and I didn't feel it until end of April or May. That sort of explained some of my results last season, but at the same time I can't make excuses for it. It at least explains what happened and what I can do to change it.

"I realize I'm not completely a head case; I thought maybe I was or something. At least I can take the perspective that this was the problem, and I can fix it and make it better."