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Kulgeyko leads intermediate ladies after SP

Californians lead the way at the U.S. Junior Championships

Courtney Hicks, who finished second Friday, talks to coach Scott Wendland.
Courtney Hicks, who finished second Friday, talks to coach Scott Wendland. (Kathleen Hurley)

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By Becca Staed, special to icenetwork.com
(12/12/2008) - The California skaters dominated the intermediate ladies short program on Friday at the 2009 U.S. Junior Figure Skating Championships in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Two one-hundredths of a point separated rinkmates Courtney Hicks and Ibuki Mori, both of the All Year FSC, who finished second and third, respectively (33.69-33.67). Leading the pack, though, is Katarina Kulgeyko of the Los Angeles FSC with a 34.05-point short program.

"First place is good, but usually I am just in my zone," said Kulgeyko. "I don't really look at other people. I just focus on myself."

The 12-year-old from San Diego skated to "Bublitschki," a Russian song about a girl who sells Russian cakes, which Kulgeyko selected with the help of her parents, both Russian natives.

Her flawless program featured four clean double jumps, including an opening double Axel, her favorite jump, for which she earned the most points (4.50). She was graded a Level 4 for her change-of-foot combo spin. Her program component score of 14.85 was the highest in the field. Because she lives an hour from her Anaheim training rink, where she is coached by Faye Kitariev, Kulgeyko often trains at a rink closer to home but shuttles back and forth several days during the week for a full day of practice, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

She called her upcoming free skate dark, quirky and happy, reminiscent of Halloween. She will portray the "bad guy" but said she isn't too nervous or worried about tomorrow.

"I try to stay in the present and focus on what I am doing now."

Hicks, who won qualifying group B, said she never anticipated such immediate success at this event.

"I didn't expect to be in first in the qualifying round," said the 12 year old of Chino Hills, Calif. "I thought I would be high but not winning."

Hicks was accompanied by her coach, Scott Wendland, with whom she has worked for only six months. Her primary coach, Brian Tuck, was unable to make it, since he is scheduled to have surgery today.

"Our thoughts and hearts are with him today," said Wendland. "We went out and did what we could. Hopefully, tomorrow will be just as good as yesterday."

Despite missing such a core individual at this event, Hicks said she is comfortable and is just trying to stay calm.

"I just try to take it day by day," she said.

Hicks' short program, skated to Vanessa Mae's "Happy Valley," began with the highest base value (18.60), which helped keep her on top despite putting a hand down on her double Lutz-double loop that received a -0.48 Grade of Execution (GOE). She landed two more clean double jumps, and both spins received Level 4s.

A razor-thin 0.02 points separated her from rinkmate Mori, who began skating only five years ago and admires world-class skaters Mao Asada and Yu-Na Kim. The 12-year-old Mori displayed exquisite spins in her short program.

"I love doing my layback spin and double Axel," she gushed. "I wasn't nervous. I was happy about my program. I didn't think I was going to be so close to the top."

Mori received the second-highest program component score (14.47), behind only Kulgeyko, and landed four clean double jumps. Both spins easily earned Level 4s and the most GOE points -- 1.20 total.

A Japanese citizen, Mori will move back to Nagayo, Japan -- her birthplace -- at the end of March but plans to keep skating there.

"I will miss friends here that I have made in school and my coach [Burt Lancon], but I am kind of excited to see my Japanese friends from a long time ago," she said.

Nicole Rajic of the SC of New York landed four clean double jumps en route to a 31.60-point segment score, putting her in fourth place.