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Baga leads novice ladies in Cleveland

Marley, Jiang sit 2-3

Kiri Baga is hoping for a happy ending.
Kiri Baga is hoping for a happy ending. (Paul Harvath)

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By Mickey Brown, special to icenetwork.com
(01/19/2009) - Kiri Baga got her first name from a book her mother used to read to her older sister.

Baga is hoping to write her own story at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships, one she hopes has a happy ending.

Baga leads the novice ladies competition in Cleveland, Ohio, scoring 43.16 points for her short program. Mary Beth Marley is in second place with 42.04 points, while Nina Jiang is third with a score of 41.86 points.

Baga is somewhat of an unknown commodity. She just missed advancing out of the first round of qualifying last season, when she finished fifth at the Upper Great Lakes Regional Championships, and placed eighth at the intermediate level at the 2007 U.S. Junior Figure Skating Championships.

She breezed through qualifying this season, finishing second at Upper Great Lakes and winning the Midwestern Sectional Championships.

Baga received positive Grades of Execution (GOE) for her triple toe and her triple Salchow-double toe combination in her "Piano Concerto in A minor" program.

"I was nervous, but I had nothing to lose," Baga said. "I'm so excited to have skated well."

Marley had a much tougher road to get to Cleveland. She placed fourth at Upper Great Lakes and fourth again at the Midwestern Sectional Championships, where she earned a trip to the U.S. Championships by a scant .37 points.

"The first two [regionals and sectionals] were learning experiences," Marley said. "This one, I was going to show what I could do. I'm not surprised."

Just before beginning her short program, which she skates to Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Beethoven," she came over to her coaches at the boards and said, "I'm ready."

She sure was, landing a triple toe to start and following that up with a triple Salchow-double toe combo. Marley's double Axel was one of the best in the event.

"This program shows that I love skating," Marley said. "I'm sad that was my last time doing it."

Jiang comes into this competition with added pressure, as she has won U.S. titles each of the last two years, in juvenile (2007) and intermediate (2008), but you would never know it from watching her skate. She's a ball of energy and enthusiasm the second the music starts, and she doesn't stop performing until the final note.

Like Marley, she had a pre-skate meeting with her coach, Shannon Vallyn, in which the two held hands, Jiang closed her eyes, and she repeated the words, "I can do it." This is a ritual for the two of them, one that evidently pays dividends.

"It psyches me up. It gets me motivated, makes me believe in myself," Jiang said.

Jiang wasn't at her absolute best in her Chicago program, but the joy she exuded was infectious.

"I love this program because it's really fun and energetic," Jiang said. "It's fun to please the crowd."

Yasmin Siraj is fourth with 38.70 points.