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Zawadzki aims to play spoiler at U.S. Champs

High hopes for clean short and strong free

Agnes Zawadzki's main focus will be to skate clean programs and land her jumps in Greensboro.
Agnes Zawadzki's main focus will be to skate clean programs and land her jumps in Greensboro. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/21/2011) - Agnes Zawadzki, the 16-year-old Chicagoan who will skate as a senior at U.S. Championships for the first time next week, has a simple goal: landing her jumps.

"I've got to do it, especially in the long program," the teen said. "That's the most important thing."

Zawadzki, a tall, strong skater, landed a lot of jumps on the senior Grand Prix circuit this fall, many of them in her short program. She placed third in the short at Skate Canada and stood second after it at Cup of Russia.

Her free skates, though, were a different story. With the podium within sight, mistakes she didn't make in practice crept into her programs.

"I think I doubted myself more than I should have," Zawadzki said. "I was like, 'Oh wow, I'm with the top skaters, and I'm second after the short!' I'm still getting used to the pressure [of being in contention] at such high-level competitions."

Zawadzki's coach, Tom Zakrajsek, thinks it's only a matter of time before the his skater -- who won the U.S. junior title and world junior silver medal last season -- hits her stride in the senior ranks.

"Agnes trains at a really high level, and definitely, her short programs in Senior Grand Prix's show she can compete with the best in the world," he said. "If she can deliver short programs under those pressure circumstances, she can be a top lady."

Next week, Rachael Flatt, the defending champion; 2010 U.S. silver medalist Mirai Nagasu; Grand Prix Final champion Alissa Czisny; and 2010 U.S. bronze medalist Ashley Wagner are considered frontrunners for the medals and the two ladies spots on the 2011 U.S. world team.

Just under the radar is a group anxious to make their mark, headed by Zawadzki and Christina Gao, who won two medals on the fall Junior Grand Prix circuit.

Zawadzki -- whose first international event was junior worlds -- elected to skip the Junior Grand Prix circuit and jump directly to senior events. The decision yielded a fourth-place finish at Cup of Russia and sixth place at Skate Canada, but also accelerated her maturity as a competitor.

"The choice says a lot about her ambition and desire to compete with the best," Zakrajsek said. "If she had done the Junior Grand Prix, her results might have been a little stronger overall, and she could have made the [Junior Grand Prix] Final, but competing on the Senior Grand Prix she learned how to cope with the pressure of TV and compete with the top women in the world.

"She's been working on her mental toughness, not just for the long program but in general...The whole process of learning through some failure is certainly what I see many top athletes go through. Sometimes young people, and their parents, see certain performances that are quite good, kind of like what Agnes gave at [2010] nationals and [the free skate at] junior worlds, and don't realize all it takes to get to that moment. It's just part of sport."

Zawadzki's ambition is what brought her to Zakrajsek, who also coaches Flatt, Brandon Mroz, Joshua Farris, Max Aaron, Alexe Gilles and other contenders at Colorado Spring's World Arena.

After placing fourth in novice at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Zawadzki -- impressed by the World Arena contingent -- urged her mother to contact the coach. The following season, they moved out west. Zawadzki's older brother remains in Chicago.

"Skating here kind of gives you motivation and an extra push," she said. "You know, you look around and everyone is having a great day on the ice, and you want to have one, too."

Like many skating families, Zawadzki's mother Jolanta and her maternal grandparents Christina and Edward -- all born in Poland -- have sacrificed to put their child on the ice. Zawadzki started in the sport at age five, when Jolanta enrolled her in a learn-to-skate class. As Agnes remembers, "It just took off from there." She trained under 1981 U.S. world silver medalist David Santee in the Chicago area.

Jolanta, who works as a nanny in Colorado Springs, can't always drive Agnes to and from the rink, so her retired grandparents often pitch in.

"We live in a two-bedroom apartment; my grandparents have the master bedroom, I have the little bedroom and my mom sleeps on the couch," she said. "My mom works a lot, so she's not at the rink too much. My grandparents really help."

When at the rink, the Cheyenne Mountain High School junior makes the most of every session.

"She has so much spirit and enthusiasm when she comes to train. Because she is still in school, she has to train odd hours and doesn't skate with other elites every day," he said.

"It doesn't matter who she is on the ice with, whether they are the best skaters in the facility or developing skaters, she always brings her A-game and practices at a high level. Her quality of movement is very athletic and refined for her age."

Zawadzki, who owns a strong triple Lutz, did solid triple toe-triple toe combinations in her fall short programs and does not plan any major changes in her programs next week.

"For Greensboro, we're keeping things the same, training the programs," she said. "I'm doing more repetitions and run-throughs, working to get mentally tougher. I know, after my shorts this fall that I can be a top lady. I have to keep working at it."

"We've trained triple Lutz-triple toe [combination] in the short and we've also trained double Axel-triple toe and triple Lutz-triple toe in the long, but not for the U.S. Championships; we're looking beyond and hoping for another assignment," Zakrajsek said.

"There are so many great women to compete with at nationals, that to receive any kind of assignment -- be it worlds, Four Continents or junior worlds -- would be a huge honor. Of course, if Agnes goes back to junior worlds this season, there will be more pressure. The first time she went, she was a bit of an unknown; if she goes again, she would be expected to do well. We've talked about it, and I think she would embrace the challenge."