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Asada, Wagner battle to near tie in Sochi short

Top two hit almost identical elements; Gao sixth after missing combination

Mao Asada holds a 0.52-point advantage over Ashley Wagner after the short.
Mao Asada holds a 0.52-point advantage over Ashley Wagner after the short. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(12/07/2012) - One skated to a perky Broadway anthem, the other to a moody movie soundtrack, but Mao Asada and Ashley Wagner hit nearly identical elements and are almost deadlocked heading into Saturday's free skate at the Grand Prix Final in Sochi, Russia.

Both skaters hit easy-looking triple flip combinations; Asada paired hers with a double loop, Wagner with a "Rippon" (two arms overhead) double toe. Both did solid triple loops in the second half of their programs and both gained Level 4s for their three spins and step sequence.

When they tallied it all up, Asada had a slight edge in both the technical elements and program components scores, and will enter the free skate with a 0.52-point lead.

Japan's two-time world champion skated with verve to George and Ira Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm," and as Ira's lyric goes, her performance just may give her some sweet dreams.

After hitting her opening jumps -- a strong double Axel and her combination -- Asada relaxed a bit, flashing a smile here and there through her connecting moves and closing step sequence. Her 66.96 points is just under the score she earned on her home turf, at the NHK Trophy last month.

"Today I was able to execute all the elements as I should have done," Asada said. "Tomorrow I have to make sure that I am psyched up and ready to skate in the free program as I did today."

Wagner, too, was spot on in her routine to John Corigliano's haunting and dramatic score to The Red Violin, choreographed by Phillip Mills.

Once plagued by inconsistent short programs that caused her to just miss U.S. world teams and the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, the no-longer "Almost Girl" skated another strong short. Her jumps, including a soaring falling leaf out of the double Axel, were in perfect time to crescendos in the music, and she earned a season's best 66.44 points.

"It was a great program; all this season, I have had solid performances," Wagner said. "Today I was able to squeeze three more points out of that short program with better spin levels and a footwork sequence. I'm really happy."

Akiko Suzuki brought yet another genre to the ice, portraying a black-clad rocker in her hard-edged short to selections from the Kill Bill soundtrack choreographed by Anjelika Krylova.

Japan's world bronze medalist had more difficult jump content than Asada and Wagner, hitting a big triple toe-triple toe combination -- the only clean triple-triple of the event -- and sterling triple flip. Her crisp steps had energy to spare, although she faltered slightly on a flying camel spin.

Her 65.00 points, by far her highest score of the season, put her just 1.96 off of the lead.

European silver medalist Kiira Korpi battled flu to compete in Sochi and, judging from her season-best short, won. Skating to Debussy's aptly titled "Girl with the Flaxen Hair," the Finnish beauty opened with a triple toe-triple toe combination (the second jump was judged under-rotated) and triple loop, and then floated through her step sequence before hitting a big double Axel and lovely closing combination spin.

She is fourth with 63.42 points.

"Everything was difficult," Korpi said. "After the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow, I hurt my back, so I had to be one week off the ice. And then I started training again, and I got a stomach flu, so I did not really have so many training days. Even last week, I was a bit uncertain if I am really in a physical condition to come here, but luckily I beat the flu, and I was able to come here."

Russia's Elizaveta Tuktamisheva, who turns 16 Dec. 17, intended to open her tango short with a triple toe-triple toe combination but could not control the landing of her first jump and reduced the second to a double. She did hit a solid triple loop and the best double Axel of the event, and sits fifth with 56.61 points.

"I didn't skate very well, so I didn't expect to get high marks, to be honest," Tuktamisheva said. "I'll try to make up for it in the free program."

Christina Gao, who received the call to compete here last Friday after Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia suffered a mild concussion in training, fell out of the first triple of a planned triple toe-triple toe combination and, since she did not add a jump to her solo triple loop, did not execute a combination.

She is sixth with 48.56 points.

"I'll probably be disappointed for a little bit about this short," Gao said. "I'm going to have to get over it by tonight and forget what happened and go into the free skate with confidence.

"No excuses, but I didn't have much time to prepare. I've been well trained all year, and today my legs were a little shaky. The same thing happened at my Grand Prix in Paris, and I missed the triple-triple. I think I didn't get a good entrance again, which is disappointing."