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Wagner survives Gold rush to repeat as champion

17-year-old upstart crushes field in free skate, rises from ninth to second; Zawadzki gets bronze

Ashley Wagner barely held off a surging Gracie Gold for her second straight title.
Ashley Wagner barely held off a surging Gracie Gold for her second straight title. (Jay Adeff)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/26/2013) - During the lead-in to the 2013 U.S. Championships, many thought the strongest ladies team U.S. Figure Skating could send to the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships was Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold.

With Wagner defending her title and Gold moving up from ninth place after the short to win the silver medal, that is exactly what happened. How it happened will supply figure skating fans -- some of whom are still tenaciously arguing the results of the 1998 and 2002 Olympics -- fodder for months of debate.

Wagner entered Saturday night's free skate with a 13.45-point lead over Gold, and needed most of it to hold off the surging teenager. The first half of her free skate to Samson and Delilah was stellar, if a bit conservative: a three-jump combination including a triple flip, followed by a double Axel-double toe, triple Salchow and triple loop. Things unraveled from there, with the 21-year-old skater falling on her next two triples, a Lutz and loop, before recovering to land a final triple flip.

"I was feeling great that first half, and then I started to overthink it a little," Wagner said. "I went down [on the Lutz] and then popped up really fast. I think I still hesitated by the time I got to the next jump (the loop).

"I stood up on that last flip, and I think that the competition as a whole was OK. It could have been better, but the season that I've had so far really helped me with this placement."

Truer words have probably never been spoken. Wagner's status as the favorite was reflected in her program components scores; at 65.82, they were by far the highest in the field and nearly 4.5 points higher than Gold's. She placed second in the free with 121.27 points and won with 188.84 overall.

Phillip Mills, who with John Nicks coaches Wagner in Aliso Viejo, Calif., thinks Wagner's marks were gracious but justifiable.

"She has proven herself this season. She won two Grand Prixs and a silver at the Grand Prix Final; I thought that record, and the quality of the program, would pull her through," Mills said.

"The quality of her skating speaks for itself. Even with the two falls, she was able to keep her composure, use the facial expression, use the musicality, and I think that's a big part of what helped her through."

After her disappointing short program, Gold skated her free, set to the Life is Beautiful soundtrack, like she had something to prove. Her jumps, especially an opening triple Lutz-triple toe combination, were high and clean, and she skated with breakneck speed and fine musicality in her steps.

Gold earned 132.49 points, the second-highest score ever awarded to a ladies free skate at the U.S. championships (Sasha Cohen earned 134.06 in 2006). That number included a technical score of 71.14, nearly 14 points higher than Wagner's.

"This is my first U.S. championships [in seniors] and it was horrifying at the beginning, and now it's been amazing," the 17-year-old skater said. "I am so proud of myself that I was able to come back after my very, very bad short program. It's been the best I've ever done, especially this season."

Asked whether she thought it was possible to make up the huge deficit and qualify for the world team, Gold answered in the affirmative.

"I actually thought that it could be possible because I have a very loaded long program with difficult elements," she said. "I have a triple Lutz-triple toe and a double Axel-triple toe with all the other triples in the program, and I have really nice jumps.

"I think I've really improved a lot on my component marks, so I knew if I skated a perfect program, I would be able to pull up into the podium," she continued. "I was thinking maybe fourth, at best, and I ended up being second. I am so happy and so proud. But, I did think it was possible [to go from ninth to second]."

Gold's coach, Alex Ouriashev, who trains the skater in the Chicago area, revved his skater up by avoiding the discussion of placement.

"I said, 'Gracie, the short program happened. I'm not blaming you, it just happened,'" Ouriashev said. "I told her, 'You are in great shape, you skated so many clean long programs, you will do it tomorrow. Just skate your clean program and don't think your dream to be on the podium.'"

Another big jumper, Agnes Zawadzki, was second after the short and took the bronze for the second consecutive season after a free skate to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" that included a fine opening triple Lutz and triple toe-triple toe combination, as well as a triple Salchow.

She lost ground when she fell on her second triple Lutz and doubled an intended triple flip. Although she was just seventh in the free, overall, her 114.32 points were good enough for third.

"I felt pretty good. A little upset with the scoring and stuff; I know I could've done better," the 18-year old said. "I let my mind get ahead a little bit, but overall, I thought it was a good push."

Several other skaters had fine free skates, with two -- 2011 U.S. junior champion Courtney Hicks, who placed fourth, and Angela Wang, ninth overall -- landing triple-triple combinations.

For Hicks, her fourth-place finish (third in the free skate) marked a comeback from knee surgery that put her out most of last season.

"I had one mistake [popping] the loop, but recovered pretty well," Hicks said. "I think all the jumps were really good. I performed the best I have all season."

It must seem like déjà vu all over again for Christina Gao. The Harvard freshman, who is coached by Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson at Skating Club of Boston, placed fifth for the fourth consecutive season.

Gao skated a clean and stylish tango program, including six clean triples, but gained just Level 1 on her final move, a flying sit spin. She placed fourth in the free with 117.54 points and ended with 176.28.

"I was really nervous before [the free skate], but I went out there and did what I could," Gao said. "I landed everything and I feel like I fought to the end, so I think I did my best. Wherever that puts me is where it's going to put me."