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Cheering Mr. Nicks spurs Wagner to lead in short

Sotnikova sits second; Harvard student Gao claims third place

Reigning U.S. champion Ashley Wagner is off to a stellar start at Skate America.
Reigning U.S. champion Ashley Wagner is off to a stellar start at Skate America. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(10/20/2012) - Sitting in the kiss and cry watching Ashley Wagner's short program at Skate America, John Nicks waved pink skate guards in triumph after his pupil's superb triple flip-double toe combination and solid double Axel.

"I was getting excited," he said.

The venerable 83-year-old coach was a bit less enthusiastic about his skater's triple loop, which suffered a bit from a lazy landing.

"It's a very nice program. She made one small error, but for a short program in the first big competition of the year, I thought it was pretty good," said the man called "Mr. Nicks" by one and all.

Wagner's performance to John Corigliano's Red Violin score, choreographed by Phillip Mills, was more than pretty good; it was fast and dynamic, with finely tuned movements and crisp steps. The flawed loop cost a point or so, and she lost a level or two on her steps and spins, so her technical score rated just third. Higher program components made up the deficit, and she earned 60.61 points to lead by 1.68.

"The triple loop was not the quality I was looking for, and I'm so bummed because I think it is one of my stronger jumps," Wagner, 21, said. "But it was the first short program out under the spotlight, so I'm pleased with how it went.

"The fact is, I was thinking throughout the entire program -- which I don't normally like to do -- but I was thinking on my feet and put out something I thought was quality. I'm pretty happy with that."

While a clean skate was the primary goal here, Wagner hopes to upgrade her combination to a triple flip-triple toe for her upcoming events.

"Coming into this competition, speaking to my coach, we decided not to do the triple-triple, which -- as a whole -- makes the program stronger," she said. "For this season, I'm going to need it in both programs to be competitive."

As for Nicks, he's taking things one step at a time.

"Programs are never perfect; you always work on something to improve," he said. "We will take a look at the tapes and decide then. I never decide too quickly after the event."

Russian wunderkind Adelina Sotnikova, the 2011 world junior champion who at 16 has already won three Russian championships, put her elegance and speed on full display during her "Capriccio Espagnol" short, which opened with an impressive triple toe-triple toe. Although she followed the combination by popping an intended triple flip into a single, her 58.93 points leave her within striking distance of the lead.

"I am not so happy with what I did today, because I didn't do what I had planned," Sotnikova said. "I'm very pleased with my triple toe-triple toe, but to pop the flip is very upsetting for me. It is a jump I don't usually miss."

Christina Gao notched the highest technical score of the event with her lyrical skate to "Close Without Touching," featuring a stellar triple toe-triple toe combination and triple loop. She sits third with 56.63 points.

"It's hard to compare programs. Each one is different, but it was definitely one of my better skates," she said. "I was pretty confident going into it and I just kind of let each jump happen as it normally does, so it felt really good."

Gao, who had trained under Brian Orser in Toronto for several seasons, moved to Boston this summer to attend Harvard University. There, she trains under Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson at Skating Club of Boston.

"It's been amazing. I absolutely love training in Boston," she said. "I love the people training there. I [skate] with Ross [Miner] and Harrison [Choate] every day. Training with Peter and Mark, the way they work fits me well, so it's been great."

The 18-year-old is taking a full course load, but thus far, she's making the schedule work.

"I've been balancing it pretty well so far; hope I can keep it going," she said. "I'm taking economics, math, Chinese and a freshman seminar."

2010 U.S. champion Rachael Flatt battled an injury to deliver her short to an Astor Piazzolla Tango, but doubled an intended triple flip and lost some levels on her spins. Although she landed a triple loop-double toe combination, she was disappointed in her 43.72 points, which left her 10th.

"I have pretty severe tendonitis in my [right] foot and ankle, and I had a partial muscle tear in my calf at some point, so that also was adding to the mix," she said. "We're not really sure what to do at this point. A little bit of re-use sets it off, but we're working on it and hoping for the best."