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Superstitious Wagner tops all bidders in short

Defending champ edges Zawadzki by 2.26 points; Nagasu slides into close third

Ashley Wagner amassed 67.57 points in her <i>Red Violin</i> short program.
Ashley Wagner amassed 67.57 points in her Red Violin short program. (Jay Adeff)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/25/2013) - Ashley Wagner was nervous. There was something in the air. Lucky things that always happened just weren't happening. And then, to top it off, she heard a song by a band she used to like, but doesn't anymore.

"I had all of these bad omens," Wagner, 21, said. "I'm crazy superstitious."

When she took the ice as the next-to-last skater of the night, she wasn't exactly raring to go.

"I was cautious at the beginning," she said. "In my head, I was, 'Oh my God, nationals is falling apart, what am I doing?' Then I realized I had a triple flip to do and I couldn't really afford to think like that. I put my head on straight and finished the program strong."

Wagner's short to music from The Red Violin may not have been spectacular, but it was more than solid.

The defending U.S. champion opened at the 2013 U.S. Championships with her reliable triple flip-double toe, and hit her next two jumps -- a double Axel and triple loop -- in the second half of the program. Her biggest glitch came in her final element, a flying sit spin, that gained just Level 2 from the technical panel, and she earned 67.57 points to take a 2.26-point lead over Agnes Zawadzki.

"I didn't have the triple-triple combination, but that was planned, and I went out and skated solid," Wagner said. "I felt like I really owned every jump, element and spin I had in that program.

"I focused on the fact I was well trained, that [coaches] Mr. Nicks and Philip [Mills] have prepared me for every single element in the program ... The triple loop wasn't my best jump, but I owned it. I stuck the landing even if it was a little bit off."

So, what were those lucky things that always happen, that didn't?

"It's from when I was 6 years old; I always find a sparkle on the ground, but I can't look for the sparkle; I have to just find it," Wagner said. "I didn't naturally just find one tonight. Also, I always just find my mom in the stands, and I couldn't find her to save my life."

Nicks, Wagner's 83-year-old coach, liked Wagner's fight but wasn't crazy about her superstitions.

"The triple loop wasn't technically her best, but she didn't give up. She landed it, and it wasn't an error," he said. "What I worry about is that she's not listening to me, that she's looking for these silly little motivational things. But she never listens to me, anyway."

Skating to Middle Eastern-style music from the Sex and the City 2 soundtrack, the powerful Zawadzki out-jumped Wagner at the start of her program, landing a huge triple Lutz and superb triple toe-triple toe combination. Her steps and spins were fast and strong, and even with a fall on a double Axel, she outpointed Wagner in technical elements. Overall, she earned 65.31 points.

"I'm really happy with the toe-toe and the Lutz; I made a silly mistake on the Axel, but I'm going to do it in the long," Zawadzki, 18, said.

Free skates have not been Zawadzki's forte. Last season, she won the short program at the 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, only to fall to third overall. It's a pattern she has also displayed in several Grand Prix events.

Christy Krall, who coaches Zawadzki in Colorado Springs, has a plan she calls "small wins" to build her skater's belief in herself.

"Confidence is not innate. We are not born with it; we have to practice being confident," Krall said. "On a daily basis, Agnes writes down her small wins. It can be anything from 'I did a better step' to 'I did a great spin.' Over time, that really builds up in your system and you think, 'I'm capable of all of these things.'"

Mirai Nagasu, who won the U.S. title in 2008 and medaled in 2010 and 2011 before slipping to seventh place last season, showed energy and attack in her short to an upbeat Big Band medley.

The 19-year-old opened with a big triple toe-triple toe combination and solid triple loop. Although she faded a bit in her step sequence, she rebounded at the end with a fine layback spin and earned 64.39 points, just 3.18 off the lead.

Nagasu, who won bronze at NHK Trophy in November, attributes her new energy to coaches Wendy Olson and Amy Evidente, who train her at Burbank's Pickwick Ice. Previously, the skater and her mother made a four-hour round-trip drive to Palm Springs several days a week to work with Frank Carroll.

"I feel that this year, since I changed coaches, I've become a little more independent and started to take care of my own life," Nagasu said. "I share a special bond with my coaches as well. Instead of placing emphasis on placement, we've been working to improve my skating and my overall look."

Nagasu's goal for each competition is to improve over the prior event.

"This week, I'm here to improve on my competition at NHK, and I think that is going to be tough because I skated pretty well there," she said. "But, I've been training hard, and hopefully, I'll be able to meet my goals."

Competing at her first U.S. championships as a senior, Courtney Hicks, who won the U.S. junior title in 2011 but suffered season-ending knee and leg injuries in the fall of 2011, impressed with her speed, fast spins and solid triple Lutz. Her opening triple flip-triple toe looked impressive, but the second triple was judged under-rotated by the technical panel, and she sits fourth with 59.72 points.

"It was a lot of fun to be able to perform this short," Hicks, 17, said. "I recently re-choreographed it a little bit, so I think it's a lot more expressive and fun. It was really nice to skate clean so that I could enjoy the program as much as possible."

Christina Gao, who has placed fifth at the last three U.S. championships, stands fifth with 58.74 points after falling on the flying sit spin in her short.

Although she opened with a strong triple toe-triple toe, and after the fall recovered to land a triple loop, she was still kicking herself in the mixed zone.

"I messed up my spin, which was really dumb. I never do that," the 18-year-old Harvard freshman said. "It was the weirdest mistake ever; I've never done that in practice. I was spinning and the next thing I knew, I was on the ice.

"I'm glad I recovered, because I had to pull it together and finish the rest of my program."

The shocker of the evening came when last season's junior champion, Gracie Gold, fell on the second jump of a triple flip-triple toe combination and singled an intended double Axel.

The 17-year-old Gold, who has impressed in practices here, was expected to contend for one of the two U.S. spots available at the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships in London, Ontario, in March. Instead, she is ninth with 54.08 points heading into Saturday's free skate.

"I am disappointed in myself and how I skated today. It was not a very good performance," Gold said. "I just have to pick myself up and try again on Saturday.

"I just didn't get my free leg through on the triple toe; it just wasn't the jump I knew how to do and trained for. Going into the Axel, I wasn't into my knees and I just rushed. I was nervous today."