'True champion' Wagner wows crowd in triumph

Harvard's Gao grabs silver for Team USA; Sotnikova brings home bronze

Reigning U.S. champion Ashley Wagner has won her last three competitions on home soil.
Reigning U.S. champion Ashley Wagner has won her last three competitions on home soil. (Getty Images)


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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(10/21/2012) - John Nicks thinks Ashley Wagner has turned a corner.

Before, when a jump felt off in the air, his pupil might let it go. No more. Wagner fights for every landing.

"At least two of the elements today, she was really in trouble technically, and she just fought it out and refused to go down, to give up," Nicks said. "That's the way the true champion approaches everything: Do not give up; fight through even when things are not particularly comfortable."

Wagner certainly disguised any discomfort in her free to Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah, playing the part of the temptress to a tee while also landing six triple jumps, including an opening triple flip-double toe-double toe combination and triple loop-double Axel sequence at Skate America. The program, choreographed by Phillip Mills, climaxed with the Danse Bacchanale, with Wagner's choreographed steps including a "Charlotte" spiral into a spread eagle and a closing combination spin.

Delilah got her gold for betraying Samson, and Wagner won the free skate with 127.76 points to gain Skate America gold and her first Grand Prix title. Her 188.37-point total topped the field by more than 14 points.

"Mr. Nicks has taught me that you can't give away jumps. You really have to fight for every single thing," Wagner, 21, said. "We work every day on my consistency. A lot of the success rate of those jumps has to do with that, just having confidence that even if something is a little bit off, I can have the speed to get out of it and land it. Having a couple of jumps that weren't perfect, and then fighting to land them, it's just proof that what Mr. Nicks is teaching me is working."

Both Wagner and Nicks think Samson and Delilah, which Wagner used to win the Japan Open earlier this month, can rival her last season's well-received Black Swan free skate in popularity.

"I knew I really had a tall order coming up with a program just as good, if not better, than Black Swan," Wagner said. "It took a lot of planning, but I think we came up with something I love even more than Black Swan and will be able to perform it even better."

"I think it's a program that connects with an audience. I think she has a lot of poise and sort of commands the ice perhaps more than some of the other skaters do, and the music choice is good for her," Nicks said. "She and I consider audience reaction very, very important."

Wagner's U.S. teammate, Christina Gao, had the competition of her life, skating with renewed fire and determination to Piazzolla's "Libertango" and landing six triples, including Lutz and flip combinations, to score 117.62 points in the free and win silver with 174.25 points.

"I was a lot more confident coming into this competition than I ever have been before, only because of the way I have been training," Gao said. "My training has been going really well. I felt settled. As I landed more and more jumps, I was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is actually happening how I've been training,' and I got more and more excited."

Gao wasn't even sure she would compete this season. In the spring, she left Toronto, where she was coached by Brian Orser, to return to her home in Cincinnati and prepare to attend Harvard University in the fall.

"I thought I might go to school and that's it," she said. "Toward the end of summer, I decided no, I wanted to continue to skate. A lot of people told me it would be really, really hard and I wouldn't be able to do it, but I guess I just wanted to prove everybody wrong.

"When I go to the rink, it gives me a good opportunity to get away from school; when I go to school, it gives me a good time away from the rink, and it's a good balance right now."

Peter Johansson, who with Mark Mitchell coaches Gao at Skating Club of Boston, thinks his skater has adjusted to her new life in record time.

"She has in a very short time prepared for this season, adapted to a new life, school and a different rink, new coaches," he said. "She has been nothing but great. She did everything she was supposed to. I hope this gives her confidence for the rest of the year.

"Seeing her at competitions, I always felt she was a very delicate, very wonderful skater. She has such a touch on the ice, beautiful as she is. That was one thing we tried to bring out in her a little bit more."

2011 world junior champion Adelina Sotnikova opened her free to "At Last" with an impressive triple Lutz-triple toe combination, followed by a strong triple Lutz. She lost ground by falling on her second triple flip, which was to have been done in combination, and dug a deeper hole by improvising a triple loop combination that was ruled invalid, since she had already included three combinations.

With these errors, the 16-year-old Russian settled for bronze with 168.96 points.

"I'm very pleased that I did the triple-triple combination. I really wanted to do that," Sotnikova said. "I'm completely unhappy about missing that second triple flip and about doing an extra combination."

2010 U.S. champion Rachael Flatt shrugged off the pain of chronic tendonitis in her right ankle to deliver a solid program to Stravinsky's "Firebird" that included five triples. She placed ninth with 136.09 points.

"At this point in my training, the last week has been pretty rough with my ankle and everything," the Stanford sophomore said. "I'm just incredibly excited that it turned out as well as it did. I'm hoping we can figure out what's going on with this injury, because it just really has not fully healed over the last two years.

"I think we're probably going to have it re-imaged and go from there. We just haven't seen anything [in tests] in the past, and it's been incredibly frustrating. We'll see what happens."