Fourteen-year-old Nagasu leads after stunning short

Top three ladies all nail triple-triples

Mirai Nagasu's brilliant short program started with a successful triple-triple combo.
Mirai Nagasu's brilliant short program started with a successful triple-triple combo. (Michelle Harvath)


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By Lynn Rutherford, special to
(01/24/2008) - If Mirai Nagasu skates her free program anything like she did her short, she'll easily take the ladies title at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

What she won't have is a trip to the 2008 World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden.

The winsome 14-year-old captured the crowd and judges with her peppy take to Gershwin's classic, "I Got Rhythm." The program included a strong triple Lutz-triple toe combination; speedy, well-centered spins; and a beautifully extended spiral sequence. Four of her five non-jumping elements gained Level 4.

The bubbly teen could barely contain herself talking to reporters in the event's mixed zone.

"It was just so much fun out there," she said. "I just wanted to land my triple-triple, and to be in first place is so exciting."

The petite dynamo racked up an astonishing 70.23 points, the highest-ever total for a ladies' short program at the U.S. Championships. Surprisingly, she produced her historic performance with just a few hours rest.

"Last night, I couldn't sleep; I was so excited," Nagasu bubbled. "I got in trouble with my mom, because she wanted me to rest. I kept mentally visualizing the program in my head. I didn't sleep, because I was so excited."

Kiyoto Nagasu will likely forgive her daughter, who leads the field by 5.08 points.

"I have to say that was her best short of the season," Nagasu's head coach, Charlene Wong, said. "I think Mirai did have some nerves; she just dealt with them. I'm especially happy about her triple-triple combination. That's the first time she's landed it [in competition]."

Despite the accolades, Nagasu is trying hard to keep her cool for Saturday night's free skate.

"My goal right now is just to skate my best and have fun," she said.

Regardless of what fireworks Nagasu may have in store, she will not be able to jump her way onto the 2008 world team. Under ISU rules, the California teen -- born April 16, 1993 -- is too young for the senior championship. Instead, it's likely that the skater will compete at the world junior championships, to be held Feb. 25 - Mar. 2 in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Ashley Wagner doesn't have that problem. The 16-year-old army brat from Alexandria, Va., vaulted into second place with a powerful performance, to music from "King Henry VIII," that featured a triple Lutz-triple loop combo.

Wagner earned 65.15 points for her display.

"I came here hoping to do a nice, clean program," she said. "I've been doing the triple-triple at home, and I figured I would see how it felt here in practice. I had nothing to lose. it was my national senior debut, and I figured I might as well put on a show."

Wagner, who was born in Germany and also lived in California and Alaska before her father took a job at the Pentagon, said the deep U.S. field helped motivate her to skate better.

"I feel like I'm one of the older skaters here, and I'm only 16," she said. "You can always feel younger skaters on your tail. It really inspired me and helped prepare me to skate as a senior."

Another under-aged youngster, 15-year-old Rachael Flatt, grabbed third place with her mature, sophisticated skate to Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So."

The Colorado Springs-based teen joined the triple-triple party with a strong triple Lutz-triple toe loop. She scored 62.91 points.

"It's so great to know I skated my best," Flatt said. "My training has been going really well. I knew I could do it, and I did. This program has come a long way since the beginning of the season."

Like Nagasu, Flatt is too young to compete at worlds. According to ISU regulation 108-2, a skater must turn 15 by July 1 of the year preceding the event. Flatt was born on July 21st, 1992, missing the cut-off by 20 days.

Defending champion Kimmie Meissner sits fourth after falling on a triple flip in her short to Peter Gabriel's "The Feeling Begins." She enters the free skate with 57.58 points, 12.65 points behind Nagasu.

"I thought the performance was really good; I was really into it," she said. "The flip was just a silly mistake. I was jumping great in practice. I was like, 'What happened?' It just didn't go up."

After falling, Meissner quickly righted herself and skated the rest of her program clean.

"I said, 'All right, Kimmie, it happened, forget about it,'" she said. "I've had falls in competition before, and I know how to handle it."

Meissner, who is coming off a disappointing sixth-place finish at the recent Grand Prix Final, remained upbeat about her skating and her future in the sport.

"I don't want to talk about [my performances at] the Grand Prix Final; I just had a bad day," she said. "I just have to stay focused all the way through the long program.

"It's great to see U.S. skating has a lot of young skaters coming up. When I was younger, I was excited to do well. I'm happy for them, and I'm happy for myself."

Another favorite, 2007 world junior champion Caroline Zhang, also faltered. The 14-year-old two-footed and under-rotated the second jump of an intended triple flip-triple toe combination, and an intended triple Lutz was also downgraded by the technical panel.

"I'm glad my spins went well," Zhang said. "My jumps could have been a lot better. I was kind of surprised. Those are my lowest technical marks this season, and I had two downgrades."

Zhang earned 53.49 points and enters the free skate in seventh place. 2008 Eastern Sectionals champion Katrina Hacker moved into fifth place with a conservative but elegant performance to the theme from Love Story.

The 17-year-old opened with a triple toe-double toe combination, far easier than that of the other top skaters. She did a three-turn out of the landing of her triple loop, but her spins, spirals and step sequences were superb.

"It felt really good," Hacker, who trains at the Skating Club of Boston under Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson, said.

"I really wanted to skate well, to represent my training. I wish I could have done a solid triple loop, but I just turned out of it a little."

As things stand now, Hacker is the next age-eligible skater, after Wagner and Meissner, for the third spot on the 2008 U.S. world team.

"I'm not thinking about that; I had no idea," she said. "I didn't know who skated before me and how many points they had. It's my first senior nationals, and I just want to skate two good programs and see what happens after that."