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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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Veronika Velez Zuzulova, top Mikaela Shiffrin rival, needs surgery

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One of Mikaela Shiffrin‘s top rivals will miss the start of the Alpine skiing season

Slovakian Veronika Velez Zuzulova, second to Shiffrin in last season’s slalom standings, is undergoing right knee surgery that will keep her out at least two months, according to her social media.

Velez Zuzulova’s unspecified injury could have otherwise kept her out six to eight months (the Olympics are in five months) if she had not chosen this particular surgery, according to the post.

Velez Zuzulova is sure to miss the first slalom of the World Cup season is Levi, Finland, on Nov. 11. She could also miss the second slalom in Killington, Vt., on Nov. 26.

Velez Zuzulova, 33, revealed last week that she hurt her knee in preseason training in Argentina.

She won three World Cup slaloms between the last two seasons. Only Shiffrin, with 12 victories, has more.

Velez Zuzulova finished second in the World Cup slalom season standings in 2016 (to Swede Frida Hansdotter; Shiffrin missed much of the season with a knee injury) and in 2017 (to Shiffrin, a massive 275 points behind).

Velez Zuzulova, an Olympian in 2002, 2006 and 2010, missed the 2014 Sochi Winter Games after tearing her left ACL in October 2013.

Shiffrin’s biggest slalom rivals to start the season should be world silver medalist Wendy Holdener of Switzerland, plus another Slovakian, Petra Vlhova, and Hansdotter.

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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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