US Figure Skating Championships

Gracie Gold soars as Ashley Wagner sinks to fourth at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

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BOSTON — What a difference a year can make.

Twelve months ago at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Gracie Gold skated as the reigning junior champion in her first senior Nationals and bombed in her short program, finishing ninth and inspiring not-so-golden headlines.

But she rebounded from that start, winning the free skate and finishing second, setting up the 18-year-old for Olympic hype over the last year.

Thursday night at the U.S. Championships Gracie was golden from the start, attacking her short program in front of an enthused TD Garden crowd in Boston and claiming first place with a 72.12.

And the skater who beat her a year ago? Two-time national champion Ashley Wagner didn’t hit her triple-triple combination, a mistake that would drop her to fourth leading into the free skate.

But now with the National – and Olympic – pressure on Gold’s shoulders, can she be as good of a front-runner as she was an underdog?

“I had a wonderful performance tonight and I got a really great score,” Gold said of her 72.12, her best short ever. “It’s a new program for me so there were a couple of unknowns going in, but I was really glad that I was able to trust my training because I’ve worked really hard with Frank.”

“Frank” is Frank Carroll, the legendary skating coach of Michelle Kwan and Evan Lysacek whom Gold began working with in September and the impetus behind her switch to Gershwin’s “Three Preludes” for her short program, a decision made just weeks ago.

The current junior national champion, 15-year-old Polina Edmunds, closed the night out with a standing-ovation performance, putting her ahead of Wagner in second. Mirai Nagasu, an Olympian in 2010, was third.

“I think that I’m in a great position going into the long program – I really am happy with where I am,” Wagner told after her skate. “Tara Lipinski stopped by as I got off the ice and told me, ‘Fourth is exactly where I was [in 1998].’ So I think I have to fight, but I prefer to fight.”

Wagner will have to fight plenty hard as she tries to work off a six-point-plus deficit against Gold, who beat her in the free skate at Nationals a year ago. Wagner finished with a 64.71; Edmunds scored a 66.75 and Nagasu a 65.44.

Olympic hopefuls Christina Gao and Agnes Zawadzki both struggled in their short programs, Gao bobbling on a step sequence and finishing sixth and Zawadzki doubling a planned triple jump, plummeting to 13th. The Colorado-based Zawadzki buried her face in her hands as her scores flashed up, fighting back tears.

But there were tears of joy for Gold, who in an Olympic season has been up and down while Wagner had been the solid one coming in.

Gold, a Boston native and now Los Angeles resident, opened with a triple Lutz-triple toe combination that was high but seamless, then executed a triple loop and double Axel later in the program, receiving loud approval from a big crowd in TD Garden.

Nagasu was the one who got the most raucous cheers of the night as the 20-year-old – who has had four years of struggles since just missing out on the Olympic podium in Vancouver – delivered a sturdy and stirring program, the 2008 national champ skating to another Gershwin piece, “The Man I Love.”

Edmunds was the 21st of 21 skaters Thursday night, but didn’t seemed phased by the occasion or the fact that she was in her first senior competition.

“I’m not really surprised,” the San Jose native said. “I know everything I need to do so when I came out here tonight I just got into the zone.”

For Gold, she might have her first medal to match her name at the senior level herself.

“You know, it’s all about tunnel vision for me,” Gold told reporters about keeping her focus. “For me it’s about turning off all social media, not texting, just putting on my headphones and skating the program I skate in practice.”

Castelli/Shnapir deliver for home crowd in pairs

Ashley Wagner eyes history at Grand Prix Final after ‘disaster’ in Japan

Ashley Wagner
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Ashley Wagner can next week become the first U.S. singles skater to make four straight Grand Prix Final podiums, but not if she performs like she did last weekend at NHK Trophy in Japan.

“NHK was a disaster,” the three-time U.S. champion said Tuesday, “but that was kind of a one-time deal.”

Wagner backed into the Grand Prix Final as the sixth and final women’s qualifier by finishing fourth at NHK Trophy on Saturday, snapping her streak of 10 straight podium finishes in Grand Prix events. She had won Skate Canada four weeks earlier.

The Grand Prix Final is the most prestigious annual figure skating competition outside of the World Championships and an event that Wagner calls a preview for Worlds (in Boston in late March/early April).

In Japan, Wagner had trouble cleanly landing and fully rotating jumps in both programs, and though she didn’t fall, her mental state was clearly shaken even before the free skate Saturday.

Japanese legend Mao Asada (one of three women to make four straight Grand Prix Final podiums, along with Irina Slutskaya and Michelle Kwan) skated immediately before Wagner.

The home crowd was at its loudest after Asada rebounded from her own poor short to move into the lead (temporarily, Asada finished third).

“I didn’t know how Mao had skated,” said Wagner, who was in third after the short program. “I figured I needed to at least get on the podium [to definitely make the Grand Prix Final], and I knew that I could probably afford a fourth place [to still make the Final]. I think that is where I went wrong. I should have just put my head down, started fresh and gone into that long program not focusing on, OK, well, I can get as low as this and I’ll make it to the [Grand Prix] Final. I think that didn’t really get me into the fighting spirit that I’m so used to competing with. When I focus on the results and not how I’m going to get there, it usually doesn’t go so well for me. It was a rookie mistake.

“I think I was playing it safe and trying to avoid making a mistake, and of course that’s exactly what I ended up doing.”

Wagner placed fifth in the free skate and fourth overall. She actually could have finished sixth overall and still made the Barcelona Grand Prix Final.

So she goes into next weekend’s competition as an underdog to Russians Yevgenia Medvedeva and Yelena Radionova, the last two World Junior champions. Plus countrywoman Gracie Gold and Asada.

Wagner’s confidence that the NHK hiccup won’t repeat could be bolstered by last season, when she was also the last qualifier into the Grand Prix Final (before Gold withdrew), was in last place after the Final short program but starred in the free skate to grab bronze.

“I like it when I have something not go so well,” she said. “When things are too perfect for too long, in a way it kind of freaks me out a little bit.”

Wagner called the women’s field in Barcelona “wide open.” It may be, given six different women won the six qualifying events, the first time nobody doubled up since 2006.

However, Wagner tapped Asada when asked to name her biggest competition. Wagner, 24, and Asada, 25, are the only women’s Grand Prix Final qualifiers older than 20.

“When she’s on, [Asada] has the whole package,” Wagner said of the three-time World champion who took last season off from competition. “She knows how to put on a performance. The audience loves her. Technically, she’s very strong. I think that If I had to pinpoint someone, Mao Asada on one of her good days, is definitely going to be one of the top girls.”

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Travis Ganong on the rise, leads U.S. men into Beaver Creek

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BEAVER CREEK, Colo. (AP) — Before checking into his Colorado hotel, Travis Ganong made a quick pit stop with his doctor to get the stitches removed from his surgically repaired right thumb.

The digit remains extremely swollen even two weeks after a training crash. So much so that he can barely push out of the starting gate.

Not that anyone could tell in Lake Louise, Alberta, last weekend, when Ganong finished third in a downhill race and came within a wisp of another podium spot in the super-G.

Stitches removed and confidence soaring, Ganong’s eager to take on the demanding course in Beaver Creek over the weekend. This is a place where last February he earned a breakthrough silver medal in the downhill at World Championships (video here).

”It’s really nice to have these solid results so early in the season. It takes the edge off,” Ganong said. ”Before you have the first result, you’re always questioning yourself. Now I can relax and that’s when the really good skiing comes.”

The 27-year-old from Squaw Valley, California, has been a rising force on the U.S. speed team since a fifth-place finish at the 2014 Sochi Games.

In such a fast sport, though, he’s taken a gradual approach to his development – never racing outside his comfort zone until he was good and ready. That was all part of his calculated plan, which came to fruition last season as he won his first World Cup downhill race in Italy and earned his first medal at Worlds.

”I was always building, building, building, getting better and better incrementally,” Ganong said. ”Last year I was like, ‘OK, my time is now. I need to try something new.’

”Bam, I won a race. But then I would have a horrible race. … Now this year it’s all about bringing that consistency back to the top, top level.”

Growing up in Squaw Valley, Ganong could always be found somewhere on the mountain, whether it was skiing powder in the back-country with his father, cross-country skiing (he was good, too), snowboarding (yep, he tried that), going over moguls or training with his team.

”We had this two- or three-inch rule where if it snowed that much, we didn’t worry about setting up gates. We’d go freeskiing and chase each other around the mountain,” Ganong said. ”That’s the No. 1 reason why so many good skiers come out of there.”

Like longtime U.S. skiing great Daron Rahlves, one of Ganong’s idols as a kid. The two talk all the time about ways Ganong can uncover more speed.

”I really excel on the steeper, more gnarly courses,” Ganong said. ”I need to try to figure out a way to bring that same intensity to the easier hills that are a little flatter and not my strong suit. Daron and I, that’s all we talk about when we talk about ski racing.”

Ganong broke through last weekend in Lake Louise, which is more of a glider’s course.

Not bad considering his recent wipeout. He tumbled during an early morning training session in Vail when he didn’t pick up a roll in the terrain. He needed surgery to fix a torn tendon and ligaments. He also bruised his left knee.

So he didn’t have all that high of expectations going into Lake Louise.

”For me to have that kind of speed on that kind of hill, yeah, that was a little surprising,” Ganong said. ”I skied really relaxed and just kind of within myself.”

No one could catch Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, though, who came away with wins on both days as he returns to the World Cup circuit after tearing his Achilles tendon last season while juggling a soccer ball.

”Aksel just knows how to let the skis go,” Ganong said. ”But Beaver Creek? It’s a different hill.”

Ganong’s kind of hill.

”Beaver Creek is way more my style of skiing and my style of hill,” said Ganong, who was fifth last December in a World Cup downhill at Birds of Prey. ”I’m trying to not think too much about it, just keep working hard, and keep thinking I’m an underdog and have something to prove.

”Hopefully, that’s a good mentality to keep me fired up.”

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