Ice Network

Wagner's route to Korea runs through 'La La Land'

Chen arrives in San Jose prepared; Nagasu ready to unleash triple axel
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Few programs in recent memory have been as eagerly anticipated as Ashley Wagner's 'La La Land' free skate, which she will debut at the 2018 U.S. Championships. -icenetwork

When Ashley Wagner announced she would finally compete the La La Land free skate she created last summer, fans cheered, the media was given a new storyline, and the competition for the three U.S. ladies spots at the PyeongChang Olympics, which will be decided this week in San Jose, got a shot of espresso.

But no one was happier than the program's choreographer, Shae-Lynn Bourne.

"Oh, I just thought it was great news," Bourne said. "I felt it was fresh and exciting, and had a sort of magic to it, because the soundtrack was music she chose herself. The program was flowing well, and I liked the end result of what was created."

Wagner liked it, too, but what the skater called the "chaos" of the Olympic season drove her to return to the Moulin Rouge free skate, also choreographed by Bourne, that helped her win a world silver medal in 2016. After enervating training sessions and disappointing Grand Prix performances, culminating with a withdrawal from Skate America due to a topical ankle infection, she decided to reboot. Bourne got a message soon after Skate America reading, simply, "We need to talk."

"Sometimes you have to step away from something to find out it's exactly what you need," Wagner said.

So Bourne, who was in Southern California last month to work up a new exhibition program for Nathan Chen, spent a day with Wagner at her Lakewood rink tweaking La La Land and, more important, sending Wagner back to the time she first saw the movie and thought, "Hey, that character -- someone reaching for a dream -- that's me."

"Shae reminded me what this program was about from the beginning," Wagner said. "It's easy to lose sight of what you want and need. Shae is such as positive, forward-thinking person, she helped me clear my mind and make me skate with conviction."

Bourne never doubted La La Land was the right vehicle for Wagner's push to regain the U.S. title she last held in 2015 and qualify for her second Olympic team. It fit the skater's own history and persona like a glove: the gritty competitor, hungry for success on her own terms, fighting to hold her spot in a sport with ever-increasing technical demands.

"The La La Land story relates to skating, performing, and having a dream and going for it, especially the piece we're using ("Audition [Fools who Dream]")," Bourne said. "It's about pushing yourself and making your dream come true, being fearless, and whether it happens or not, you just keep going. It relates to where Ashley is in her life, it comes from an honest place, and it gives her a chance to really shine."

To win a fourth U.S. title, the 26-year-old Wagner will have to overcome multiple challengers in a wide-open ladies field. Defending champion Karen Chen, 18, has also had a rocky campaign, returning to last season's self-choreographed programs (a short to On Golden Pond and free to "Jalousie Tango") after competing two other frees and a different short.

"She has that passion with these programs. She's putting herself out there; she's owning it again," said Tammy Gambill, who coaches Chen in Riverside, California. "She's revamped the programs a little bit to add an extra spark, redone the footwork. [Technical specialists] looked at it, so it's right. All of the nuances are there, down to her facial look and her fingertips."

Last season Chen surprised with electric performances at the U.S. championships and edged out Wagner for the title.

"Honestly, I think she's more prepared this year than last year, more healthy and having more consistent run-throughs," Gambill said. "She hit her triple lutz-triple toe in the first practice here. Her jumps were very tight at Skate America, and she didn't settle down, but I see them clean in practice every day, and she's doing it."

Wagner is also up against a fresh face in 19-year-old Bradie Tennell, who has skated consistent, technically demanding programs all season and won a surprise bronze medal at Skate America. But the greatest threat may be a skating contemporary: 2008 U.S. champion Mirai Nagasu. The 2010 Olympian is landing clean triple axels in San Jose practices and plans the three-and-a-half revolution jump in both her short and free.

Only two ladies -- Tonya Harding (1991) and Kimmie Meissner (2005) -- have landed the jump at the U.S. championships; Harding also landed several in international competition. Nagasu was credited with a clean triple axel at her Grand Prix in France this season.

"I love that I'm recognized as one of two U.S. women to land it in (international) competition," Nagasu, 24, said. "You don't have to learn all of the jumps at a young age. It took me three years to learn my double axel and a really a long time for me to do a triple axel, and I'm proud to be recognized for something no one in the U.S. can do right now."

Both Zakrajsek and Nagasu consider the triple axel, with its base value of 8.5 points, one of the skater's strongest jumps.

"I know on her media call Mirai said she was landing axels clean 80 percent of the time," Zakrajsek said. "But I asked her, 'How many are you really missing?' She said, 'Not many.' So, I think it's been more like 90 percent."

According to Zakrajsek, the training focus has shifted away from the jump a bit. Nagasu collaborated with choreographer Jeff Buttle four times this season, including twice in Colorado Springs. Zakrajsek's associate coach, Drew Meekins, shadowed Buttle during those Springs sessions and has been working with Nagasu on the nuances of her programs. The skater has also used various techniques, including visualization, to help her consistency with her other triples and combinations.

Zakrajsek said, "You know the motto, 'Leave no stone unturned'? I'm fairly confident we've covered everything. Mirai is determined to be on another Olympic team."