Ashley Wagner tops U.S. Championships short program

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Ashley Wagner outskated Gracie Gold in the U.S. Championships short program Thursday night, taking the lead by five points over her rival with an eye on her third national title.

Wagner, who finished fourth at the 2014 U.S. Championships in Boston and was controversially put on the three-woman U.S. Olympic team, was much cleaner one year later in Greensboro, N.C.

Wagner scored 72.04 points (video here) with what she called the first triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination of her career. The total was .08 shy of Gold’s record for a U.S. Championships short program from 2014.

“I was able to go out and try a newer, technically demanding program and, for the most part, put out a solid performance,” Wagner said. “This is a great stepping stone.”

Wagner joked about the difference one year made. Last year, she was fourth after the short program and under pressure to earn a spot on her first Olympic team despite winning the U.S. title in 2012 and 2013.

“It’s really great to be standing in front of you guys [the media], and I don’t have to explain myself,” she said Thursday.

Gold scored 67.02 (video here), with a triple-double combination, followed by the third woman on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team, Polina Edmunds, who tallied 66.04.

Wagner, 23, can become the oldest woman to win a U.S. title since Michelle Kwan won the last of her nine U.S. titles in 2005. She can also become the first woman since Kwan to win at least three titles.

The free skate is Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC and Live Extra.

Wagner, seventh at the Sochi Olympics, is coming off a bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final in December, improving from being in sixth place out of six skaters after the short program.

She said she took time off in the break between the Grand Prix season and nationals for the first time in her career.

“I usually kind of poop out halfway through the season, and I don’t think anybody wants me to do that anymore,” Wagner joked.

Gold, 19, competed Thursday for the first time since she pulled out of the Grand Prix Final in early December with a small stress fracture in her foot.

“It wasn’t the best short program that I have ever performed, but it was still a very strong performance,” Gold said, adding she had “adversities” in training but not blaming the triple-double combo (rather than triple-triple) on the injury. “However, it’s just the short program. I’m looking to come back strong.”

Edmunds bounced back from a rough Grand Prix season to move into safe position to make her second straight World Championships team, if she stays in third after the free skate. (though she could still be placed on the three-woman Worlds team if lower than third)

Gold and Edmunds, 16 and the youngest U.S. Olympic figure skater since 1998 (Tara Lipinski), must hold off fourth-place Mirai Nagasu (.76 behind Edmunds) and fifth-place Courtney Hicks (1.03 behind).

Samantha Cesario, who came to Greensboro as a threat to displace Edmunds, was a disappointing 11th with 59.21 points.

Earlier in pairs, Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim posted 74.01 points, the highest short program score in U.S. Championships history. Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier were second with 68.38, followed by Olympian Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran at 64.24.

The pairs free skate is Saturday afternoon. Two pairs will make the World Championships team.

The U.S. Championships continue Friday with the short dance (5:15 p.m. ET) and the men’s short program (8:15 p.m.) streamed live on Icenetwork.com.

U.S. Championships men’s preview

Women’s short program
1. Ashley Wagner — 72.04
2. Gracie Gold — 67.02
3. Polina Edmunds — 66.04
4. Mirai Nagasu — 65.28
5. Courtney Hicks — 65.01