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Dress switch helps Asada edge Wagner in short

U.S. champion earns highest international score ever; Zhang sits fourth

Japan's Mao Asada edged U.S. champ Ashley Wagner by just 0.18 points in the ladies short program.
Japan's Mao Asada edged U.S. champ Ashley Wagner by just 0.18 points in the ladies short program. (Getty Images)

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(02/10/2012) - The ballerina portraying Rimsky-Korsakov's title character in Scheherazade usually wears loose-fitting harem pants, but a change of costume helped Mao Asada stay on her feet and edge Ashley Wagner by 0.18 points in Friday's short program.

"Actually, my old costume was a unitard with pants, and I wasn't able to move as freely," Japan's two-time world champion said through an interpreter. "After this switch to a dress, it is easier to move around.

"This new costume is the triple-Axel version."

The maneuver was far from perfect -- Asada under-rotated the jump and landed it on two feet -- but it still earned 3.71 points, helping her to 64.25 points total at the 2012 Four Continents Championships, just less than her season's best.

The rest of the program, including a triple flip-double loop combination, flying sit spin and triple loop, was solid and secure. The highlight came toward the end, with a light and captivating step sequence featuring fluttery arm movements that complemented the music.

"My biggest goal of this competition is including the triple Axel and at least I tried it," Asada, 21, said. "It wasn't perfect but I'm pretty happy to land it. Since I came to Colorado Springs, I've felt good about the Axel so I decided after I came here to put the jump in my short program."

Wagner, the newly crowned U.S. champion, did her short program at the 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose earlier this month one better by opening her routine with a triple flip-triple toe and gaining full credit for rotating the jumps, although the toe was a bit two-footed.

The rest of her Pollack routine had just the right amount of snap and polish, including a strong triple loop and three Level 4 spins.

"It's the best I've ever scored internationally, which for me is huge because the entire Grand Prix season I think in the short program I didn't score higher than 55," Wagner, 20, said. "I upped the ante by about nine points and that's not too shabby."

The skater has been forthright about her desire to help earn three U.S. ladies worlds' spots at the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships in Nice in March, and thinks adding a triple-triple to her short is one way to do it.

"I went for the triple-triple; it had been great in practice and in the warmup it had been on one foot, which I was really happy about," she said. "And then come time for the short program I was a little nervous, so the two-foot's ugly face kind of reappeared.

"I got full credit for it. I was extremely pleased. I had a kind of wobbly triple loop in the warmup, so I'm happy I did such a solid one in the performance."

Japan's bronze medalist, Kanako Murakami, performed the cleanest short of the afternoon, including a solid triple toe-triple toe, to earn 63.45 points and enter the free skate less than a point out of the lead.

"Although I was worried about the double Axel at the end of the program, I succeeded and gathered everything together," the 17-year-old said through an interpreter. "I'm very satisfied with today's performance."

It was a big step up from earlier in the season, when a lengthy recovery from a stress fracture in her right foot, combined with boot problems, relegated her to mediocre finishes in her Grand Prix events.

"I had a really rough start to the season, but after switching to new boots, it has been all uphill," she said. "At the beginning, I was not even sure I would reach the world championships, but today I am pretty happy. If I skate a good free tomorrow, I will be able to go to worlds with confidence."

California's Caroline Zhang continued her string of impressive shorts, earning a season's best 58.74 points for a program including a triple loop-triple loop combination. Although she turned out of the second jump, she gained full credit for the rotation, and then quickly recovered with a triple flip and double Axel.

"The first one I missed this week was the one in the warmup, so that threw me off a little, but it wasn't downgraded or under-rotated, so that's an improvement," said Zhang, who sits fourth.

"I knew there was the entire program to try to get points on and I just forgot about that mistake and tried to do the rest of the program the best I could."

The 18-year-old's coach, Peter Oppegard, has said the skater needs to gain maximum points for her spins. Friday, all three earned Level 4.

"I lost out on a lot of points at nationals by getting Level 1s and 2s, and I really want to make sure I didn't do that this time, so it was something I was focusing on," she said.

U.S. bronze medalist Agnes Zawadzki sits sixth with 52.87 points. The 17-year-old, who trains in Colorado Springs, fell on her opening triple toe, intended to be done in combination with a second triple toe, but recovered quickly to execute a triple Lutz-double toe.

"I was a little nervous going into it," Zawadzki said. "It kind of threw me off; I was like, 'What am I doing on the ground?' But I think I regained my mental focus very quickly and everything after the fall was pretty solid."

Lacoste, Phaneuf battle continues

A subplot in Colorado Springs revolves around Canadian champion Amelie Lacoste and Canadian silver medalist Cynthia Phaneuf, who are fighting to gain Canada's single ladies' spot at the 2012 World Championships.

Although Lacoste defeated Phaneuf at the 2012 Canadian Figure Skating Championships earlier this month, Phaneuf has more worlds' experience, including a career-high fifth-place finish in 2010. Shortly after their championships, Skate Canada announced that the top finisher here would win the spot.

Things looked bleak for Lacoste after the 23-year-old Quebecoise failed on her triple Lutz, skating through the element and earning virtually no points. However, the rest of her program was strong, and she earned a season's best 51.72 for seventh place.

Skating in the final warmup group, Phaneuf failed to capitalize on her rival's error, falling on a double Axel and triple Lutz. She earned 50.76 and sits eighth, and less than a point separates the two entering the free skate.