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Ashley Wagner details dropping ‘La La Land’ free skate

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Ashley Wagner, the pre-eminent U.S. female figure skater of the last decade, changed her mind on one of the most significant decisions a skater can make going into the Olympic season.

Wagner, the 2016 World silver medalist and three-time U.S. champion, tossed out the new free skate she had been working on last month.

It was set to music from “La La Land,” which earned a record-tying 14 Academy Award nominations earlier this year and won six Oscars (and, briefly, infamously, a seventh for Best Picture).

Now, she’s back to music from “Moulin Rouge.” It accompanied her free skate in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.

Those years, Wagner posted the highest free skate scores in U.S. Championships history and for an American in international competition history.

“I really did love the [‘La La Land’] program,” Wagner said Wednesday, while promoting the Dick’s Sporting Goods Contenders program, which assists 41 Winter Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls with their preparation for the PyeongChang Winter Games.

“I was very passionate about what I was doing,” she continued. “I started training it day to day, and the music is beautiful. But just something wasn’t quite clicking, and the character didn’t really feel as complicated as I wanted her to be. There really didn’t feel like there was much of an emotional range. And I love drama. I love having those moments.”

The return to “Moulin Rouge” came abruptly as Wagner described it. One day at practice in early August, she consulted her steely coach, Armenian Rafael Arutyunyan.

“Is this program good?” Wagner asked.

“Yeah, it’s a really good program,” Arutyunyan responded.

“Is it good enough? Is this going to get me through the Olympics?” she pressed.

Arutyunyan told Wagner to put “Moulin Rouge” music on and skate.

“I made it to the first double Axel in the program,” Wagner said. “He turns off the program, and he goes, this is the program I want you to do.”

Wagner agreed.

“It’s my Olympic moment,” she said Wednesday, “and this is the person I want to be at the Olympics.”

Wagner, who lives and trains in Southern California, said publicly as far back as February that she wanted to skate to “La La Land” at the Olympics. Skaters usually wait until after the preceding season ends in early spring to announce program music for the following season.

But Wagner was so enamored that she texted her choreographer from a movie theater to say she had chosen “La La Land” for her Olympic free skate.

Wagner’s 11-year senior international career is marked by ups and downs, tears and several concussions. She identified with the film’s theme of hope.

“I love the music. I still do,” she said. “I just think that it was very much like an inspirational kind of a setup. I loved that. I loved the choreography. I can’t speak highly enough of the music. But I just know myself, and I know that after a couple of months of just one emotion, I get bored.”

Two weeks after the switch, Wagner performed to “Moulin Rouge” at last month’s U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp. At Champs Camp, skaters receive preseason feedback from officials on programs before debuting them in competition.

“I gave them the opportunity to see ‘La La Land’ if they wanted to, but everyone at U.S. Figure Skating was very supportive of my decision,” Wagner said.

Wagner said she will make her Olympic season debut at a small, local event. She won’t say where or when it will be. Her international season debut is at Skate Canada the last weekend of October.

She’s gearing up for the U.S. Championships in January, after which three women will be named to the Olympic team. That team will be chosen by a committee based on results not only at nationals but also previous top-level competitions.

Wagner is familiar with the selection process.

She was the top U.S. woman in fall 2009 but finished third at the 2010 U.S. Championships and was left off the two-woman Olympic team.

Wagner was fourth at the 2014 U.S. Championships and placed on the three-woman Olympic team over third-place finisher Mirai Nagasu. Wagner earned that spot based on performing the best of all U.S. women nationally and internationally the previous year.

Now 26 years old, Wagner can become the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles skater since 1928.

Wagner wants to separate from her own past this season, even as she performs to music associated with some of the biggest triumphs of her career.

Skating to “Moulin Rouge” again last month, “made me feel like the athlete that I was at 2016 Worlds, so that definitely made me feel nostalgic,” she said, referencing moving from fourth to second in the free skate in Boston to become the first U.S. world medalist in a decade. “Maybe that’s why I like this program so much.”

But judges may want to see something new.

So Wagner added professional dancer Benji Schwimmer to her choreography team. Schwimmer has worked with Wagner’s best friend and training partner Adam Rippon.

“This is a new season,” Wagner said, “and hopefully somewhat of a new version of Moulin Rouge.”

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World figure skating champions make Olympic season debuts this week

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Nobody can accuse the last two male figure skating world champions of ducking the competition.

Yuzuru Hanyu and Javier Fernández, training partners who combined to win every global title since 2014, open their Olympic seasons by competing against each other this week.

The Japanese megastar and the Spanish trailblazer headline the Autumn Classic, a lower-level event in Quebec starting Thursday.

The men’s short program is Friday (8:15 p.m. ET) and the free skate Saturday (8 ET). A live stream is here.

Showdowns like this are usually reserved for, at the earliest, the Grand Prix series in late October and November.

Hanyu and Fernández are very familiar with each other, having shared a coach in Canadian Brian Orser, the 1988 Olympic silver medalist, since 2012. They train in Toronto.

In that time, Hanyu became the first Japanese man to win an Olympic title (and the second teen from any nation to do it). He followed it up with world titles later in 2014 and this year.

Fernández achieved unfathomable success for a Spanish skater — world titles in 2015 and 2016, overtaking Hanyu in the free skate both times.

In PyeongChang, Hanyu can become the first man to repeat as Olympic champion since Dick Button in 1952. Fernández can become the third Spaniard to earn a Winter Olympic medal of any color in any sport, and the first since 1992.

But first they face off in Quebec.

Hanyu is the decided favorite after winning last season’s world title by breaking his own free skate record score. He moved up from fifth after the short program, while Fernández dropped from first after the short to fourth.

However, Hanyu has proven beatable early in the season, losing his first two international events in 2014, then one of his first two in 2015 and 2016.

More pressure is on Fernández, who missed the podium at the two biggest events last season — worlds and the Grand Prix Final. He is 26 years old. Aside from Hanyu, every medalist at worlds and the Grand Prix Final was a teen.

Another world champion makes an international season debut this week — Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva.

She skates at the lower-level Nepela Trophy in Slovakia on Thursday and Saturday. The 17-year-old is on the longest major winning streak in singles skating in 30 years, having not lost since November 2015.

The Nepela field includes the only woman to beat Medvedeva in a senior competition — countrywoman Yelena Radionova. But Radionova faded to fifth at last year’s Russian Championships and is in a battle just to make the Olympic team.

Medvedeva might better be judged against two women who aren’t in Slovakia but won B-level events last week.

Alina Zagitova, 15 and the 2017 World junior champion, won her senior international debut in Italy with 218.46 points. That score would have won silver at last season’s senior worlds.

Marin Honda, 16 and the 2016 World junior champion, won her senior international debut in Salt Lake City with 198.42 points.

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Mirai Nagasu, inspired by RuPaul, is top U.S. woman at season opener

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It’s a new season for Mirai Nagasu, the beloved U.S. figure skater tearfully left off the 2014 Olympic team.

Season five, to be exact.

“Today, before I competed, I watched season five, episode one of ‘RuPaul‘s Drag Race,’ so that I could channel my inner queen,” Nagasu said after finishing second at the U.S. International Classic on Saturday night.

Japan’s Marin Honda, 16 and the country’s new female face after Mao Asada‘s retirement, won the international season opener by 11.79 points in Salt Lake City.

Full scores are here.

That was to be expected, even though Honda had never before skated on the senior international level.

That’s how ballyhooed she is. Honda has 217,000 Instagram followers. Her personal-best score from last season — in junior competition — was higher than any U.S. senior woman at worlds.

Instead, the drama as the Olympic season began concerned three of the top four U.S. women from last year.

It’s rare that so many Olympic team contenders gather for one competition in September, five months before the Winter Games.

Nagasu, fourth at the last two U.S. Championships, overtook U.S. champion Karen Chen for silver by 1.22 points at the B-level International Classic after being in third place after Friday’s short program.

Nagasu easily outdistanced U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell by 14.88 points.

None of the three skaters were close to clean.

Nagasu, though she became the second U.S. woman to land a triple Axel in international competition (after Tonya Harding), two-footed landings on the jump in both programs. Not so bad.

But what hurt more was having six other jumps called under-rotated in her free skate, including a fall.

It’s the kind of performance that, if repeated at the U.S. Championships in January, could give Olympic team selectors reason to leave Nagasu home again.

“My butt hurts a little bit, so I’m going to go ice it,” Nagasu said. “Which is ironic, because I fell on ice.”

Chen and Bell also both fell in their free skates.

The Olympic team of three women will be announced after nationals. Nagasu’s finish there will largely determine whether she makes her second Olympic team at age 24 — eight years after placing fourth in Vancouver.

But, as what showed four years ago when Nagasu was third at nationals and passed over, results before the U.S. Championships matter.

Nagasu will go into the fall Grand Prix series knowing she has bettered two of her main rivals for places in PyeongChang.

But Nagasu was not the highest-scoring American this weekend. Bradie Tennell, 19 and making her senior international debut in Italy, tallied 13.16 points more than Nagasu.

Granted, scores at the Italian competition were higher across the board than in Salt Lake City.

Three-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner‘s season debut is set for October.

Earlier Saturday, world silver medalist Shoma Uno won the Lombardia Trophy with the fourth-best score of all time — 319.84 points. Only Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu has scored higher.

Uno’s total was also the highest score ever in a competition in September, the month some (but not all) skaters ease into their seasons at lower-level events.

The previous high was 275.04, set by Nathan Chen at the U.S. International Classic earlier this week.

Comparing scores between B-level events isn’t quite apples to apples, but that Uno outscored Chen by 44.8 points this week was noteworthy.

They are the only male Olympic medal contenders to compete internationally so far this season.

Uno attempted and landed seven quadruple jumps between two programs at Lombardia. Chen, who has the ability to throw seven quads, eased into the Olympic season with three quads in Salt Lake City.

At Lombardia, Uno distanced second-place Jason Brown by a whopping 59.96 points.

Brown, a Sochi Olympian and 2015 U.S. champion, is in the running for one of three U.S. Olympic spots along with Chen, Vincent Zhou and Adam Rippon, among others.

Brown attempted one quad at Lombardia, falling in the short program. His score — 259.88 — was 1.67 points fewer than 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron totaled at the U.S. Classic this week.

The figure skating season continues next week with the last two male world champions — training partners Hanyu and Javier Fernandez — facing off at the Autumn Classic in Montreal. Medvedeva also makes her international season debut in Slovakia.

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