For the last few years, the U.S. Championships has been all about the Ashley Wagner–Gracie Gold rivalry. While Wagner and Gold are both podium threats again this week, the individual story for each has taken interesting turns in the last year.
Recall that last year Wagner had to rally just to finish third at the U.S. Championships. But she followed that up with a silver medal at the world championships, becoming the first U.S. woman to earn an individual Olympic or worlds medal in a decade.
Then Wagner won Skate America in October. In her 10th senior season, Wagner seemed to have it figured out as much as ever. Until her next event in China in November, when Wagner finished sixth, her worst result in 25 career Grand Prix starts.
Which Wagner will show up in Kansas City?
Then there’s Gold, who won last year’s nationals with a magnificent free skate. Gold followed that by topping the short program at the 2016 World Championships, putting her in position to end the U.S. medal drought.
But Gold had the sixth-best free skate at worlds, stumbling to fourth place overall. The sting of that performance stayed with her for just about the rest of 2016. Gold struggled so much in the fall season that it wouldn’t be shocking to see her miss the nationals podium for the first time, and perhaps not make the three-woman world championships team.
Which Gold will show up in Kansas City?
Behind Wagner and Gold are skaters who have experienced up-and-down careers like 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu and Courtney Hicks as well as younger skaters who have developed in this Olympic cycle — Mariah Bell, Karen Chen and Amber Glenn.
Who knows how they will perform under the pressure of a U.S. Championships, one year before the Olympics.
“The ladies is a real mixed bag,” NBC Olympics analyst Johnny Weir said.
Hometown: Los Angeles
2016 World silver medalist
Three-time U.S. champion
Wagner can become the oldest U.S. women’s champion since 1927. If she skates like she did at Skate America, that should be enough. Wagner’s score there was the highest by an American woman this season by nearly five points, and she wasn’t even at her best. If she skates like she did last time out at Cup of China in November, Wagner will not win her fourth national title this week.
Johnny Weir’s Take: The clear favorite. She has had the most consistent and promising season of the U.S. ladies, despite the fact that she didn’t make the Grand Prix Final. Her consistency has been head-and-shoulders above that of Gracie Gold. If she skates the way Ashley Wagner skates, given Gracie Gold’s instability lately, it is her title to lose.
Hometown: Los Angeles
Two-time U.S. champion
Fourth at 2014 Olympics, 2015 World Championships, 2016 World Championships
Gold mulled skipping the fall season, still depressed after falling off the worlds podium. After lacing up her skates, she finished fifth and eighth in her two Grand Prix starts, then a desultory sixth at a lower-level event in December that caused her to seek out an old coach for desperate help. Gold echoed renewed confidence in speaking to the media last week, but will it translate to her programs?
Tara Lipinski’s Take: You never really know which form Gracie is going to show up in. The only thing that’s really blocking her is the mind. That can always turn around very quickly. It’s much harder to turn around a technical problem.
Hometown: Colorado Springs
2008 U.S. champion
Fourth at 2010 Olympics
With Gold’s struggles and the absence of Olympian Polina Edmunds, Nagasu is arguably a top-three favorite this week. Especially if she attempts and hits the triple Axel she’s been practicing. What a comeback it could be for Nagasu, who won her only U.S. title nine years ago and last qualified outright for a worlds team in 2010.
Tara Lipinski’s Take: She’s always the wild card. She’s been in it so long. She trains so hard, and she wants it so badly. When you look at her track record, it sort of seems that one competition she does well, the next one is a disaster.
Hometown: Lakewood, Calif.
2016 Skate America silver medalist
Bell is this year’s new face. She finished second to her new training partner Wagner at Skate America with the second-best total score by a U.S. woman this season. However, Bell scored 24 fewer points at her most recent competition in November.
Tara Lipinski’s Take: She’s flying under the radar. It’s all fitting together for her right now. This is a key chance for her to make her mark at nationals, especially depending on what Gracie skates like.
Hometown: Aliso Viejo, Calif.
2016 Rostelecom Cup bronze medalist
2015 NHK Trophy silver medalist
Hicks is an annual name on the contender list but has never capitalized on her athleticism to land in the U.S. Championships top three in four appearances. Hicks and Wagner are the only U.S. women to make Grand Prix podiums in both of the last two seasons, but her top total score this season ranks sixth among U.S. women.
Hometown: Riverside, Calif.
2015 U.S. bronze medalist
Chen stunned by taking bronze at nationals two years ago, becoming the youngest woman to finish that high since Nagasu took the title in 2008. Chen hasn’t followed that up with much international success, but she still has time to develop.
2014 U.S. junior champion
Glenn showed up on the radar by topping Gold at a lower-level event in December. Her score there ranks her No. 5 among U.S. women this season, and she’s the only contender on this list who hasn’t competed in the Grand Prix series. See how she fares with a little more attention this week.Follow @nzaccardi