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Nagasu takes lead, but Czisny, Flatt in the hunt

Last three U.S. champions battle for two worlds spots

Mirai Nagasu leads after the short program, but she's got some company at the top.
Mirai Nagasu leads after the short program, but she's got some company at the top. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/27/2011) - The three leading U.S. ladies of recent years -- Mirai Nagasu, Alissa Czisny and Rachael Flatt -- put on a quite a show in the short program competition in Greensboro.

Going into Saturday's free skate, a wafer-thin 1.03 points separates the three former U.S. champions, who all produced near flawless performances. They are competing for just two spots on the U.S. ladies team for the 2011 World Figure Skating Championships in Tokyo in March.

For Nagasu, the leader by .85, success may boil down to a simple philosophy she shared with reporters in the mixed zone: "I have to do the jumps anyway, so why not go out and land them."

The 17-year-old nailed a triple Lutz, double toe combination and triple flip in her elegant and dynamic program to Franz Liszt's "Un Sospiro" and Witches of Eastwick, as well as a big double Axel out of a gorgeous Ina Bauer.

As usual, her spins -- especially her layback -- shone, and impressed the technical panel enough to merit Level 4. She earned 63.35 points; her lead might have been a bit larger, had she not received an unusual edge call for an incorrect outside-edge takeoff on her triple flip.

It was a huge ego boost for the sometimes insecure Nagasu, whose left ankle stress fracture this summer took her off the ice for nearly two months. The forced inactivity, said the irrepressible teenager, saw her grow "sideways and upwards."

"I feel good about how I skated, especially since coming into this year I was injured and not skating for two months," she said. "It was a big blow to my confidence.

"I've competed like a chicken all year long, except in France [Trophee Eric Bompard] I was able to step up to the plate [and win the silver medal]...I was a little nervous I hadn't worked as hard as I could."

Nagasu's challenge is now to hold her lead. Often, most disastrously at the 2010 World Figure Skating Championships in Turin, she has won the short only to crumble in the free. In Turin, she ended up seventh.

"I'm able to usually go full out more [in the short], I'm not scared as much I'll run out of energy," she said. "Going in to the long program, I'm just going to take a deep breath and do what I do in practice."

For Frank Carroll, who trains Nagasu in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., his skater's merits are plain.

"I thought it was great," the veteran coach said. "She was free, she was charming, she was quick, and she had lots of speed. She was on.

"What's wonderful about Mirai, what separates her from the other girls, is her speed. She moves like a bat out of hell."

After a devastating 10th-place finish at the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships had her thinking about retirement, Brian Boitano gave Czisny some words of advice: never leave with any regrets.

There will be no second-guessing after the 23-year-old's seemingly effortless short to Korngold melodies that had cleanly landed jumps, magnificent spins and Czisny's patented flowing elegance. Like Nagasu, she received an edge call on her triple flip, but still earned 62.50 points.

"I was happy with the performance because I really went out there, stayed focused on what I've been working on," Czisny said. "I think this whole Grand Prix season gives me the confidence I can do my job when I have to do my job."

Czisny's rejuvenation -- the 2009 U.S. champion won the Grand Prix Final in December -- began last summer, when she left longtime coach Julianne Berlin to train with Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen at the Detroit Skating Club.

"I'm so glad Yuka and Dungjen believe in me, and that's how I've overcome any doubts," she said.

"Everything is different. I feel like a different skater. I feel I like a different person going in to competition. I learned a lot about myself and grew up a lot. A lot is working on my technique.. and trusting my technique going in to a competition."

Flatt, the defending champion, served notice her foot injury and woes at the Grand Prix Final in December were in the past.

Skating with newly found speed and abandon to the soundtrack of East of Eden, choreographed by Lori Nichol last month, she hit a triple flip, double toe combination and crisp triple Lutz.

An Ina Bauer into her straight-line step sequence drew cheers from the crowd, and she gained a full standing ovation along with 62.32 points. Her only flaw was her layback spin, which dropped to Level 1 after she was unable to align her shoulders and hit a difficult sideways position.

"Things went well with the debut of the short, considering I've only had it about a month," the 18-year-old said.

"I was a little disappointed I didn't get the triple-triple. It's been going well in practice, but I was a little slow going in to [the flip]."

Flatt dropped her previous short, set to a jazz medley including Gershwin's "Summertime," after placing sixth at the Grand Prix Final in Beijing in December.

"It just wasn't well received," she said. "Eleven hours after I came back from China, I went to Lori [Nichol, in Toronto] and we did the program in two days and polished it the third day."

Flatt's coach, Tom Zakrajsek, who trains the skater in Colorado Springs' World Arena, said the new short inspired Flatt to skate with greater freedom.

"I thought it was beautiful, it was emotional," he said. "Probably Becky [Calvin, who also coaches Flatt] and I both choked up tonight. This is probably our last nationals with Rachael [who will attend Stanford University next year] and to see her skate that well, get those component marks, was great."

Agnes Zawadzki, a powerhouse 16-year-old who also trains under Zakrajsek and Calvin, made her stand with a soaring triple toe-triple toe combination and big triple Lutz in her Mambo short.

The 16-year-old, who won the 2010 world junior medal and is skating as a senior for the first time this year, is fourth with 61.54 points.

"I'm really happy I stuck with my training plan and succeeded," she said. "I can't wait for my long program."

The long has been a sticking point for Zawadzki, who was in medal contention after the short at Cup of Russia and Skate Canada last fall before faltering in the free skate.

"I've been working on my mental [game], trying to toughen myself up, even if I make a mistake in my long program," she said. "Not getting ahead of myself and not taking one thing at a time, I have to work on that."

"Depending on how this shakes out and where she's at, we may have a talk about how to approach the long," Zakrajsek said. "We have mental drills about different scenarios we've created to help our preparation."

Christina Gao, who trains in Toronto under Brian Orser, hit a triple flip-triple toe combination in her short and is fifth with 58.43 points. Surprising newcomer Vanessa Lam rounds out the top six with 57.61.

2010 U.S. bronze medalist Ashley Wagner, who has been hampered by flu in Greensboro, hoped to execute a triple flip, triple toe combination in her short but turned out of the flip and was unable to do the second jump. Although she added a double toe to her triple Lutz, she sits seventh with 54.63.