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Steak bites: Wagner skates through salmonella

Gold looks sterling in practice; Gao seeks that tango feeling

Even some bad salad dressing can't stop reigning U.S. champion Ashley Wagner from smiling.
Even some bad salad dressing can't stop reigning U.S. champion Ashley Wagner from smiling. (Sarah S. Brannen)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/24/2013) - The senior ladies hit town for their first practices on Tuesday, and it was déjà vu all over again for John Nicks.

Some 45 years ago in Omaha, the octogenarian coached JoJo Starbuck and Ken Shelley to the junior pairs title at the 1967 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. They later won three senior U.S. titles and two world bronze medals.

This time around, at the 2013 U.S. Championships, he hopes to coach Ashley Wagner to her second straight U.S. title.

"I remember it was cold, and the people were warm," said Nicks, bundled up against the single-digit temperatures seeping into the practice rink. "I'm from Southern California, Laguna Beach, so it's a little different here."

When icenetwork.com last caught up with Nicks, he practically guaranteed a victory here for Wagner, saying, "I feel very confident she will do it ... The quality, the passion, the excellence she brings is obvious to everyone and, I believe, will be justly rewarded in Omaha."

On Tuesday, he was still upbeat, but he hedged his bets a bit.

"I'm a little nervous; we went to Russia [for the Grand Prix Final], and although she won the silver medal, she had a real bad fall in the long program and hurt herself with a hip pointer," he said.

"We didn't get moving until a week or 10 days after that. And then she went down with food poisoning last week. She had some bad Caesar salad dressing or something like that, and didn't do much work for three or four days, so preparation has not been ideal.

"However, she skated very well in practice today, but the preparation has not been normal at all," he added.

A smiling Wagner seemed no worse for the salad, but did admit that the episode threw off her training heading into Omaha.

"It's salmonella; I called [coach] Phillip [Mills] last Tuesday and said, 'I can't come in,' and he said 'Its nationals, you are coming in,'" she said. "Then, he saw me and said, 'Uh, we will do just a little bit and you can leave.'

"It's frustrating, because I was in nationals shape and then that hit and just wiped me out, so I felt I was starting back at zero again. But, I have amazing coaches and I feel like every day I'm getting stronger and healthier.

"But, it's going to be a while before I have a Caesar salad, if ever," she added.

Nicks also caused a bit of buzz in another recent icenetwork.com article when he hinted that he might just retire after this season.

Wagner took the suggestion that she might have to compete during the Olympic season without her mentor in stride.

"There are a bunch of different options, and I support him no matter what his decision is," the 21-year-old skater said. "I mean, he is 83 years old. Who am I to say, 'No, you can't do that, you have to keep coaching me.'

"Philip is an amazing coach, and that is why I wanted a coaching team. That way, I wouldn't be devastated if Mr. Nicks chose to retire. As of now, it's not even certain, so we will see what happens."

Golden practice for Gracie

As Wagner delivered her interview, Gracie Gold was in the midst of an impressive run-through of her free skate to Life is Beautiful, hitting an opening triple Lutz-triple toe combination, a double Axel-triple toe and every other element in her program -- including spins and steps -- without pause.

"It was perfectly clean, actually," Gold's coach, Alexander Ouriashev, said.

"It's always a confidence-booster to go and do a perfectly clean long, especially in the first day of practice," Gold said, and then added that last season, she won the U.S. junior title with a similar layout.

"The elements are pretty similar to last year, but we've added more difficult transitions, and, of course, it's a longer program at the senior level. I feel pretty comfortable with it because I practiced a similar program last year and did pretty well with it, so it's a good set-up for me."

After completing her run-through, Gold and Ouriashev devoted the rest of the practice to working on Gold's specialty: a triple Lutz done with both hands overhead.

"It won't give me extra [base value] points, just extra GOE (grades of execution), but it's set apart from the rest of the girls just doing a plain triple Lutz in their programs," Gold said. "Not only does mine have a difficult entrance, an Ina Bauer, but also my arms are above my head."

Ouriashev confirmed that his skater plans to include the maneuver in her short program here.

"It sounds kind of strange, but it is kind of her trademark," he said. "Maybe the next generation of skaters will follow her. I always say do it, it is your trademark. No other lady in the world does it."

The 17-year-old Gold, who admitted to feeling the pressure during her seventh-place finish at Skate Canada in the fall, is trying to keep things low-key in Omaha.

"I'm trying to take it easy; it's my first senior nationals. It's a lot different feel than junior," she said. "I'm just trying to take it one step at a time and continue on with good skates like I had [winning silver] at [Rostelecom Cup].

"If I make the world team, that's awesome. If I don't and get sent someplace else, that's OK, too. I have a bunch of seasons ahead of me."

Gao adjusts free skate to add more tango feel

Boston's Christina Gao also had fine practices on Tuesday, hitting her triple toe-triple combination.

The Harvard freshman is coming off her strongest-ever Grand Prix season, winning silver at Skate America and placing fourth at Trophée Eric Bompard. Hoping to skate even better here, she has made a few adjustments to her tango free skate, choreographed by her coach, Mark Mitchell.

"I'm just working on the presentation, and getting all of the levels, which I haven't been," Gao said. "They have been getting better since Skate America, but I'm trying to nail them all down. Just having a stronger all-over program, that's what I want.

"I'm changing the triple Salchow in the latter half of my free skate to a triple toe. That way, I can focus more on selling the program, because it's a tango, and I'm not close yet. I'm trying, and, hopefully, this time will be more like a tango when I skate it.

"My Salchow is fine; the toe is a little bit more consistent for me, so we just put it in."

Reporter's notebook: Asked whether he and Wagner were exploring frigid Omaha in their downtime, Nicks got off his first quip of the week: "I'm not her friend. She doesn't need 83-year-old friends. We don't sit down and listen to Neil Diamond together." ... Leah Keiser has withdrawn from the senior ladies competition after injuring her right ankle.