Ashley Wagner, unshaken by 2014, out to reclaim U.S. title

Ashley Wagner

Ashley Wagner wants to lead U.S. Figure Skating into not only the World Championships in March, but also the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics.

“It starts with me getting my national title back,” she said in a phone call with media Monday.

Wagner goes into next week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Greensboro, N.C., as a slight favorite, co-favorite or the top challenger to defending champion Gracie Gold.

Wagner, the 2012 and 2013 U.S. champion, finished a shockingly low fourth behind Gold at last year’s event in Boston and was controversially put on the three-woman U.S. Olympic team over third-place finisher Mirai Nagasu. Wagner earned her spot on that team based on her results across all competitions the previous two years.

“It does not haunt me,” Wagner said of last year’s U.S. Championships, which left her in tears.

Monday marked the one-year anniversary of Wagner officially making her first Olympic team, the news coming via text message from U.S. Figure Skating hours after her flawed free skate.

A month later, Wagner won a bronze medal in the Sochi team competition and finished seventh in the individual event, two spots ahead of countrywoman Polina Edmunds, who was second at the U.S. Championships.

“It’s so hard to put into words what your dreams coming true really feels like, and what it does to you,” said Wagner, who in 2010 was third at the U.S. Championships, just missing a two-woman Olympic team. “Making it to the Olympics, getting the bronze medal, that was everything that I’ve really ever wanted with this career. Now, I have this amazing luxury that I can kind of do whatever I want with skating.”

Two goals immediately come to mind. Win a third national title, something no U.S. woman has done since Michelle Kwan (who won it nine times).

She must go through Gold, the only U.S. woman to score higher than Wagner in the fall Grand Prix season.

Gold thrust onto the scene at the 2013 U.S. Championships, jumping from ninth after the short program to finish second to Wagner — by a tiny 2.27 points — with the second-highest free skate at a Nationals under the new scoring system. Wagner, who fell twice in her free skate that day in Omaha, called Gold’s performance then “lights out.”

Gold, now 19, missed the prestigious Grand Prix Final in December due to a small stress fracture in her foot. Wagner called Gold “a gift” on Monday.

“In skating, she makes me uncomfortable,” Wagner said, “because she’s always kind of breathing down my neck.”

Without Gold at the Grand Prix Final, Wagner won bronze, skating with nothing to lose in the free skate after placing sixth out of six skaters in the short program.

“I think that people take me a little bit more seriously now,” Wagner said. “They see that it is possible that I can go for the title, and I’m not just kind of along for the ride.”

Wagner’s next objective, should she make the three-woman team for the World Championships, is to stand on the podium at Worlds in Shanghai in March. She finished fourth at Worlds in 2012, fifth in 2013 and seventh in 2014.

Powerful Russia will send three women to Worlds, all likely at least five years younger than Wagner, who at 23 admits she is one of the older women in the sport.

She must outscore at least one of the Russians to win her first Worlds medal. No easy task, given four Russians topped Wagner in the Grand Prix Final short program.

“I don’t like to get beat,” Wagner said, “And I do not like to get beat by girls.”

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Japanese pair edges Americans for historic Grand Prix Final figure skating title

Riku Miura, Ryuichi Kihara

Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the biggest title ever for a Japanese figure skating pair, taking the Grand Prix Final and consolidating their status as the world’s top active team.

Miura and Kihara, last season’s world silver medalists, barely outscored world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier in Turin, Italy, in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate to win the six-pair event that is a preview of March’s worlds.

The Japanese totaled 214.58 points, distancing the Americans by a mere 1.3 points after Frazier erred on both of their side-by-side jumping passes in the free skate. Italians Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii took bronze.

“We had a very late start to our season than initially planned, so as we have been performing at each event, I see us getting stronger, improving things,” said Frazier, who with Knierim had their best short program and free skate scores of the autumn.

Knierim and Frazier didn’t decide to continue competing together this season until July.

“I feel a little personally disappointed tonight just for myself for my jumps,” Frazier continued. “I was a little all over the place and, normally, I can execute better, so I feel a little bad, but I’m very proud of us overall. We’ve done a great job of improving each competition and looking forward to the second half of the season where we can start tapping into our best skating.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Miura and Kihara, who partnered in June 2019 and train in Ontario, both waited with trepidation for their final score to be posted, worried that each’s separate mistake on jumps might cost them the title. When they learned they won, both burst into tears.

“This was the first time in eight years that I made a mistake with a Salchow, so I thought we might not get a good score, and it would be my fault,” Kihara said.

Miura and Kihara entered the competition ranked No. 1 in the world by best scores this season ahead of Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Last season, Miura and Kihara became the second Japanese pair to make a Grand Prix podium and to earn a world championships medal. Their ascension helped Japan win its first Olympic figure skating team event medal in February (a bronze that could be upgraded to gold pending the Kamila Valiyeva case).

In Grand Prix Final history, Japan had won 11 gold medals and 40 total medals, all in singles, before this breakthrough.

Knierim and Frazier, already the first U.S. pair to compete in the Grand Prix Final since 2015, became the first U.S. pair to win a Grand Prix Final medal. The Final has been held annually since 1996, though it was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Miura and Kihara and Knierim and Frazier ascended to the top of the sport while the top five teams from the Olympics from Russia and China have not competed internationally since the Winter Games.

All Russian skaters are ineligible for international competition due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t enter last March’s worlds and did not compete in the fall Grand Prix Series.

Later Friday, world champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan led the women’s short program with 75.86 points, 1.28 ahead of countrywoman Mai Mihara. American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, was fifth of six skaters in her Grand Prix Final debut.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier topped the rhythm dance with 85.93 points, edging Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates by .44. Both couples are bidding for the biggest international title of their careers. None of the Olympic medalists competed internationally this fall.

The Grand Prix Final ends Saturday with the men’s and women’s free skates and free dance, all live on Peacock.

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A Winter Olympic medal still being decided, 10 months later

Fanny Smith, Daniela Maier
It's still unknown whether Fanny Smith (green) or Daniela Maier (blue) is the Olympic ski cross bronze medalist. (Getty)

There is a second Winter Olympic medal result still in question, 10 months after the Games.

While the figure skating team event results are still unknown due to the Kamila Valiyeva case, the bronze medal in women’s ski cross is also in dispute.

Originally, Swiss Fanny Smith crossed the finish line in third place in the four-woman final at the Winter Games in February. Upon review by the International Ski Federation (FIS) jury, she was minutes later demoted to fourth place after making contact with German Daniela Maier near the end of the course. Maier, who originally was fourth, was upgraded to bronze.

“I tried to be OK with the fourth place. I was very disappointed, I have to say, [then] the jury was like this,” Maier said then. “I am really sorry for Fanny that it’s like this right now. … The jury decided like this, so accept it and be happy with the medal.”

Smith and the Swiss ski federation appealed. FIS reinstated Smith as the bronze medalist nine days after the race and six days after the Closing Ceremony. A FIS appeals commission met four times and reviewed video and written documentation for several hours before deciding that “the close proximity of the racers at that moment resulted in action that was neither intentional or avoidable.”

But that wasn’t the end. The case ended up reportedly going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), whose rulings are usually accepted as final. The CAS process is ongoing, European media reported this week.

CAS has not responded to a request for comment. A FIS contact said Friday, “There is currently no update to provide in regards to the bronze medal in ski cross. Should there be any update, we will inform you.”

Smith said there should be news soon regarding the case, according to Blick.

Maier still has the bronze medal at her home and enjoys looking at it, according to German media, which also reported that the German ski federation expects Maier to win the case and keep the medal. Smith and Maier spoke extensively about it in recent training sessions and cleared things up. Maier said the best outcome would be bronze medals for both of them, according to the report.

For now, FIS lists Smith as the bronze medalist. The IOC lists Maier as the bronze medalist.

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