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Wagner not ready to break out 'big tricks'

Triple-triple will likely have to wait; Virtue, Moir take next step toward regaining world title

Ashley Wagner makes her season debut this week at Skate Canada.
Ashley Wagner makes her season debut this week at Skate Canada. (Paul Harvath)

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By Lynn Rutherford and Alexandra Stevenson, special to icenetwork.com
(10/27/2011) - Ashley Wagner's hair is a little lighter, her smile a little brighter. Gradually, she has morphed into a California girl.

But there's something the transplanted Easterner still misses.

"It's always the same here, every single day," the 20-year-old from the Washington, D.C., area said of her new training digs near Los Angeles. "I liked that for a little bit, but now I want some change, some weather."

Not that Wagner is complaining. Since moving west this summer, she has enrolled at Saddleback Community College, with an eye to someday transferring to the University of California. She's made new friends and has settled into a training routine with coaches John Nicks and Phillip Mills.

"I've really created a nice life for myself out there," she said.

Wagner hopes her new training situation lends stability to her sometimes inconsistent results. Too often -- especially at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where Wagner has placed fourth, third and sixth the past three years -- untimely mistakes have cost her medals and world championship berths.

"The one thing Mr. Nicks stresses is that I practice perfection," Wagner said. "He would rather have me go out and do it less and have me do it well. That's one thing that's changed about my previous coaching relationships.

"Once competition rolls around, it's really going to help, because I'm going to have that perfect practice behind me. When I get out there and I'm under pressure, I can turn on muscle memory and go at it."

At age 82, the venerable Nicks can count a long string of top U.S. lady pupils, most famously Sasha Cohen but also Tiffany Chin, Naomi Nari Nam and Angela Nikodinov.

Still, Wagner stands apart.

"She is different from the other ladies," Nicks said shortly before the two departed from California to Mississauga. "She is out here from the East Coast, living by herself without parents, which is sort of unusual. She is a very independent person because of that.

"To be honest, as I usually am, our relationship is different from the usual, but it's been very good. I think she understands my concept of the relationship between athlete and coach ... We have mutual respect that's the basis of all my teaching relationships."

Wagner looked strong at her summer competition, the Glacier Falls Summer Classic, where she racked up 167.31 points in a winning effort. She hopes for more of the same at Skate Canada.

"I just want to put out a solid performance in Canada," she said. "It's not really about throwing out all the big tricks yet. I'm going to go for a nice, solid, strong program [set to music from Black Swan] that looks clean. All my choreography [by Mills] is going to be in there.

"It will be the perfect package in Canada, and then I am going to work on getting in the harder elements."

For Wagner, those harder elements include an elusive triple flip-triple toe combination -- which she has hoped to land for several seasons -- as well as a double Axel-triple toe.

"At nationals I am planning on having the triple-triple in the [free] program, but I do not think it is going to be there in Canada," she said.

Nicks agrees that Wagner should play the waiting game.

"It's October, it's not January, and so I expect her to be better as the season goes on, but for the first major competition of the year, I think she has been doing very well," he said.

"You need a 'high percentage of completion' [on the triple-triple], as we call it, and she's doing well. I don't think she'll do it at Skate Canada; I think she'll probably need it later in the year."

Wagner will be joined by two other top U.S. ladies, both former U.S. champions: Mirai Nagasu, fourth at the 2011 U.S. championships, and U.S. silver medalist Rachael Flatt.

The U.S. trio will take on formidable Russian upstart Elizaveta "Liza" Tuktamisheva, the 14-year-old world junior silver medalist who won the Japan Open early this month, as well as Alena Leonova, who thrilled a hometown crowd in Moscow with her strong fourth-place performance at the 2011 World Figure Skating Championships. Japan's Akiko Suzuki, who won two silver medals on the Grand Prix circuit last fall, will also fight for the podium, as will Canadian champion Cynthia Phaneuf.

Virtue, Moir look strong for hat trick
There's no sure thing in sports, but with the withdrawal of European champions Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat (due to his severe bronchitis), it's hard to imagine Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir not winning their third Skate Canada title.

The 2010 Olympic champions have already competed internationally this year, winning gold at the Finlandia Trophy with 170.33 points. Since then, they've tinkered with their programs, a Latin short dance and a free dance to Gershwin tunes, including music from the 1957 Fred Astaire/Audrey Hepburn film Funny Face.

"We learned a lot in Finland," Virtue told reporters in Mississauga on Thursday. "[The feedback was] all positive, which is very reassuring. It's kind of scary putting it all out there the first time.

"We got a lot of technical feedback. We changed the lift in our short and made other minor changes. We're looking forward to presenting our programs before a hometown audience."

The Canadians are injury free, a change from the past few seasons, when pain in Virtue's shins related to chronic exertional compartment syndrome limited their practice time. After Virtue underwent a second surgery for the condition last fall, the team withdrew from its fall events and the Canadian championships. While competing at the 2011 Four Continents Championships, they withdrew during their free dance.

"We're still improving," Moir said. "The injury last year allowed us to have some breathing space and appreciate what we've done. It gave us a chance to feel hungry again.

"I'm not a big believer in 'everything happens for a reason,' but the timeout because of the injury did put us in a position where last year we were sitting in the audience, and that was really tough. We realized how much we missed skating."

While Virtue and Moir's biggest competition in Mississauga will likely come from Canadian teammates Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, who placed a strong fifth at 2011 worlds, after the event their eyes -- as always -- will be focused on Davis and White. The world champions earned 178.07 points at Skate America last week, and the Canadians will certainly aim to meet or better that mark here. The two super teams will likely meet for the first time this season at the Grand Prix Final in Quebec City in December.

U.S. ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who like Virtue and Moir train in Canton, Mich., under Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva, make their Grand Prix debut at Skate Canada after winning bronze at Finlandia. The skaters, who both won U.S. medals with previous partners, teamed up this summer.