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Nagasu hangs on for ladies national title

Flatt wins free skate, silver; Wagner takes bronze

Mirai Nagasu gave a very focused and determined performance. Her free skate was just enough to hang onto the gold medal in Saint Paul.
Mirai Nagasu gave a very focused and determined performance. Her free skate was just enough to hang onto the gold medal in Saint Paul. (Michelle Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/27/2008) - On a night when a new generation came to the fore, Mirai Nagasu overcame a fall on her opening double Axel and a third-place finish in the free skate to capture the U.S. title.

The ninth grader from Arcadia, Calif., became only the second skater in history to win the U.S. senior ladies crown the season after taking the junior title.

In a quandary for U.S. Figure Skating's International Committee, the top two finishers, Nagasu and Rachael Flatt, are both too young under International Skating Union (ISU) rules to compete at the 2008 World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden.

With their gold and silver medalists unavailable, the committee named bronze medalist Ashley Wagner; fifth-place finisher Bebe Liang; and 2006 world champion Kimberly Meissner, who placed a devastating seventh in Saint Paul, to the 2008 world team.

"That's the best team we can have for this year," said Ron Hershberger, President of U.S. Figure Skating.

"We go forward. Obviously, we want all our kids to have good experiences. We will send a very strong team to world juniors [Nagasu, Flatt and Caroline Zhang]. Obviously, we look to our long-term goal, which is to have someone on the 2010 Olympic podium."

Hershberger said petitioning for an ISU rule change isn't an option.

"The same issue was raised in 2006, when [Japan's] Mao Asada was age ineligible, and nothing could be done about it," he reasoned. "By the time anything could be done, we would be past the issue."

"At the Grand Prix Final, we did bring this topic up with the ISU, and we were told a flat 'no' for both worlds and Four Continents," added David Raith, executive director of U.S. Figure Skating.

Nagasu, just 14-years-old, carried a 5.08-point lead into the free skate, and needed nearly all of it to fend off Flatt and Wagner.

Skating to Leo Delibes' "Coppelia," the 4'11" sprite fell on her first jump and had her second jump element, an intended triple Lutz-triple toe loop, downgraded by the technical panel.

Nagasu recovered with a solid triple flip-double toe combination and three other triples. Although her second triple Lutz had a deduction for an incorrect, inside edge take-off, all four of her spins -- as well as a beautifully extended spiral sequence -- gained Level 4.

The teen earned 120.18 points for her free skate and took the title with 190.41 points overall, edging out Flatt by 1.68 points.

"I was really nervous going in to the program, because I heard the crowd going wild for Rachael and Ashley," Nagasu, who skated last, said.

"When I fell, I said, 'What am I doing? I have to get it back under control and then attack.'"

The endearing teen had to be told by her coach, Charlene Wong, that she had won the title.

"I didn't have my glasses on, and she said, 'Oh my God, you won!' I just said, 'What?'"

Nagasu, who won the silver medal at junior worlds last season, didn't seem too disappointed about missing out on a trip to Sweden.

"I definitely think I'm not ready for anything that high yet," she said. "I want to get more experience and get ready before I get to go to worlds."

Flatt had the performance of the night with her mature, relaxed program to Mathieu's "Romantic Rhapsody," choreographed by Lori Nichol. The teen was practically textbook perfect, hitting seven fully rotated triple jumps, including a triple Lutz-triple toe loop worth 10.43 points. She earned 125.82 points for her free skate and 188.73 overall.

"I really didn't watch the competition too much; I just stayed focused on what I had to do," said Flatt, who at 15 misses the ISU cut-off age by just 21 days.

"I had everything to gain and nothing to lose, so I just attacked it and had fun."

Like Nagasu, Flatt said she doesn't mind skipping worlds this year.

"I definitely need more [international] experience," she said. "I haven't had too many competitions yet."

Flatt sat out the 2006 Junior Grand Prix Series with an injured back. She was passed over for last season's junior world team, despite placing fifth in senior ladies at the 2007 State Farm U.S. Championships.

Wagner placed second in the free skate with a speedy, confident program marked by strong jumps, including an opening triple Lutz-triple loop combination worth 11.57 points. She earned 188.56 points and took home the bronze medal.

"It was a very tough competition," the 16-year-old said.

"There are so many young competitors coming up who are 14 and 15. It's just insane; the next two years until the Olympics will be exciting. There's always somebody on your tail pushing you."

While younger teens celebrated, defending champion Kimberly Meissner struggled to contain her disappointment.

Skating to familiar strains of Puccini's "Nessun Dorma," the 18-year-old had a disastrous outing, falling three times and landing just two clean triples. She placed seventh in the free skate and seventh overall.

"This is a bummer," Meissner said. "All I can say is I was confident going in, but I just lost it.

"I don't know what happened. My flip feels like it's a new jump. I trained real hard; I did three program [run-throughs] every day."

World junior champion Caroline Zhang rebounded from a seventh-place finish in the short program to place fourth in the free and fourth overall with 173.16 points.

"I did a pretty good program," she said. "I could have made my spins faster, but I'm just glad I skated well.

"I hit my first triple-triple [a flip-toe], so I'm really psyched. I was already in seventh, so what did I have to lose? I'm really happy with how I skated."

Like Nagasu and Flatt, the 14-year-old Zhang is too young to be considered for the world team. All three youngsters are expected to compete at the 2008 World Junior Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, on Feb. 25-Mar. 2.

Liang, at 19 a veteran of the Senior Grand Prix circuit, placed fifth in the free skate and fifth overall with 164.87 points. Gothenburg will be her first worlds.

"I really tried to enjoy myself out there tonight," Liang said. "I just tried to be really relaxed and have a lot of fun."

Although she placed ahead of Meissner in sixth place, 17-year-old Katrina Hacker, who trains in Boston under Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson, was bypassed for the 2008 world team. The skater was named first alternate and will also be sent to the 2008 Four Continents Championships, to be held Feb. 11-17 in Goyang City in the Republic of Korea. Liang and Wagner were also named to the Four Continents team.