Ashley Wagner felt terrified. She skated terrific.
Wagner shattered the U.S. Figure Skating Championships women’s records for free skate and total scores, compiling 148.98 and 221.02, respectively, to win her third national title in Greensboro, N.C., on Saturday night.
“I’m terrified,” Wagner told her coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, before gliding out for her free skate with a five-point lead over defending U.S. champion Gracie Gold, who was yet to skate.
Wagner, 23, landed seven triple jumps in her program to break Gold’s records of 139.57 and 211.69 from last year. She became the oldest U.S. women’s champion since Michelle Kwan in 2005 and the first woman since Kwan to win three national titles. Kwan won nine.
“This, of my three titles, is the one that tastes the sweetest,” Wagner, also the 2012 and 2013 U.S. champion, said on NBC. “I’ve had so many critics over the past couple of months. I’ve had so many people who said I’m too old for this, I am burnt out. But, you know what, I am so hungry to make a career for myself. I was able to turn all this negativity into something positive.”
Gold finished second with 205.54 points, which was 15.48 behind Wagner (full results here). She fell on a triple flip. Gold was the top U.S. woman at the Sochi Olympics (fourth) and 2014 World Championships (fifth).
“It was really hard to skate a long program after the roar of the crowd and the standing ovation,” said Gold, who skated right after Wagner. “It brought me back to Sochi, skating after Adelina Sotnikova, who won.
“We’ve been at each other’s throats raising the bar,” Gold said of her rivalry with Wagner. They’ve been one-two at two of the last three U.S. Championships.
Wagner and Gold will next head to the World Championships in Shanghai in March, looking to win the first U.S. women’s medal at a Worlds or Olympics since 2006. That’s the longest U.S. women’s drought in the Winter Olympic era.
Wagner has bounced back after finishing fourth at the 2014 U.S. Championships and being controversially put on the three-woman Sochi Olympic team over third-place Mirai Nagasu.
“Last year’s nationals, that was horrifying,” Wagner said. “Then I had a so-so Olympics and Worlds. Then my Grand Prix season was solid but nothing all that remarkable. I felt like people were starting to write me off, and I wasn’t giving them any reason to believe I’m competitive.”
Then came the Grand Prix Final in December.
Wagner showed she can win a medal at Worlds when she improved from last place of six skaters in the short program at the Barcelona event to win bronze. The Grand Prix Final is the second biggest annual international competition behind Worlds.
“I am a force to be reckoned with,” said Wagner, who was seventh at the Sochi Olympics and Worlds last year and is looking for her first World Championships medal. “It’s time for people to start considering me someone who’s coming for the podium.”
Karen Chen, 15, finished third with 199.79 points in her senior national debut, landing six triple jumps in her fantastic free skate. Chen became the youngest U.S. women’s medalist since Nagasu won at age 14 in 2008.
Chen, however, is too young for the World Championships.
That could open the door for Olympian Polina Edmunds, 16, to make her second World Championships team since the U.S. will send three women to Shanghai. Edmunds fell on a triple Lutz in her free skate and dropped from third after the short program to finish fourth at 192.62.
Wagner mentioned one more thing, going back to her pre-skate conversation with her coach.
“I watched this awesome commercial before I skated, and throughout the commercial it was this coach giving a pregame speech, and one of the quotes within the commercial was, ‘Passion has a funny way of trumping logic,'” Wagner said, adding she has the quote on her mirror at home and repeated it to herself Saturday.
Earlier, Madison Chock and Evan Bates held off siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani to win their first U.S. ice dance title. Chock and Bates were eighth at the Sochi Olympics behind gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who are sitting out this season.
Chock and Bates and the Shibutanis will be medal threats at the World Championships against top couples from Canada and the reigning World champions, Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte of Italy.
In pairs, Alexa Scimeca and Christopher Knierim won their first U.S. title with the highest total score in U.S. Championships history. They completed the first quad twist by a U.S. pairs team in competition. Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier were second, likely locking up the second U.S. pairs berth at Worlds.
Neither team is likely to end a 12-year U.S. pairs medal drought at the World Championships. They were both outside the top six international pairs teams during the Grand Prix season. Russia, Canada and China dominate the event.
The U.S. Figure Skating Championships conclude with the men’s free skate Sunday (4 p.m. ET on NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra).
Women’s final results
1. Ashley Wagner — 221.02
2. Gracie Gold — 205.54
3. Karen Chen — 199.79
4. Polina Edmunds — 192.62
5. Samantha Cesario — 182.82
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold finished one-two at each of the last three U.S. Championships.