U.S. Figure Skating Championships women’s preview

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Ashley Wagner can become the oldest U.S. women’s figure skating champion in 79 years this week. Standing in her way? Gracie Gold.

Wagner, 24, and Gold, 20, combined to win the last four national titles and finished within two places of each other at last three World Championships.

Each hopes to become the first U.S. woman to earn an individual Olympic or World Championships medal since 2006 at this spring’s Worlds in Boston.

“This event is going to be the best event at Nationals,” 1998 Olympic champion and NBC analyst Tara Lipinski said. “You have Gracie and Ashley technically evenly matched. They both struggle when it comes to actually competing and having that mental nerve when it counts.”

The winner automatically qualifies for Worlds. The other two women on the Worlds team will likely be the silver and bronze medalists but will be chosen by a committee following the U.S. Championships.

Icenetwork.com will stream the short program from St. Paul, Minn., on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET. NBC and NBC Sports Live Extra will air the free skate live on Saturday at 8 p.m.

Here’s the full competition and broadcast schedule.

Here’s a look at women’s skaters to watch:

Ashley Wagner
Age: 24
Hometown: Los Angeles
Credentials: 2012-13, ’15 U.S. champion, seventh at 2014 Olympics, fifth at 2015 World Championships

Last year, Wagner became the first woman to win three U.S. titles since Michelle Kwan (who won nine). This year, Wagner can become the oldest U.S. women’s champion since Maribel Vinson in 1937.

At 24, she’s still at or near the top of her game. She won Skate Canada in November and placed fourth at the Grand Prix Final in December, proving the best U.S. woman in fall competition (based on results, not necessarily scores, more on that in the Gold section).

Wagner’s goals go beyond national championships. Her best shot at a Worlds medal may come in two months, with home-ice advantage in Boston. She’s also looking to the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics, with a chance to better a seventh-place finish from Sochi.

Lipinski’s Take: “Ashley, to me, is a slightly stronger competitor [than Gold]. Mentally, when she goes out there, she gets mad, and she can really sell a performance.”

Ashley Wagner: ‘The end is in sight’

Gracie Gold
Age: 20
Hometown: Hermosa Beach, Calif.
Credentials: 2014 U.S. champion, fourth at 2014 Olympics and 2015 World Championships

Gold finished 15.48 points behind Wagner at the 2015 U.S. Championships, when Wagner shattered Gold’s records for highest Nationals women’s free skate and total scores. Gold competed then under less-than-ideal preparation, following a small stress fracture in her left foot late that fall.

She came back to better Wagner at the World Championships by 3.95 points two months later. They finished fourth and fifth.

This season, Gold posted better scores than Wagner in the Grand Prix series (by 2.59 in the short program; 5.62 in the free skate). But Wagner then beat Gold by 5.02 in the Grand Prix Final in December, making up a 6.48-point deficit from the short program. Again, they were fourth and fifth.

Lipinski’s Take: By far she is the best in the U.S. Technically, she is insane. When I watch her in practice, she hits triple, triple, triple, one after another, just like it’s nothing. She gives me chills. When I asked her what happens when you go out and have to compete, she just says she struggles to get into that zone.

“Even though she did not win last year, I still believe this is hers to lose.”

Gracie Gold discusses retirement

Karen Chen
Age: 16
Hometown: Fremont, Calif.
Credentials: 2015 U.S. bronze medalist

Chen’s third-place finish in her senior Nationals debut last year could have put her on the three-woman World Championships team, but she was too young for the event. So fourth-place Polina Edmunds went instead. Chen took eighth at Junior Worlds (after being ninth in 2014).

This season, her first as a senior international skater, Chen placed fifth at both Skate America and Cup of China. Edmunds and Courtney Hicks, two other contenders to make the Worlds team, posted better Grand Prix series scores than Chen.

Polina Edmunds
Age: 17
Hometown: San Jose, Calif.
Credentials: 2014 U.S. silver medalist, ninth at 2014 Olympics, eighth at 2014-15 World Championships

Edmunds joined Gold and Wagner as the third U.S. woman at the 2014 Olympics and 2014 and 2015 World Championships, but her hold on that place is very tenuous.

For one, she was fourth at last year’s Nationals behind Chen. She won the Four Continents Championship a month later over Gold and Japan’s best skaters, but did not follow that up this past fall. Edmunds was sixth at Skate Canada and fourth at Rostelecom Cup, though she would finish third this week if all skaters repeat their best Grand Prix scores.

Mirai Nagasu
Age: 22
Hometown: Colorado Springs, Colo.
Credentials: 2014 U.S. bronze medalist, 2008 U.S. champion, fourth at 2010 Olympics

The 2010 Olympian won the U.S. Championships the last time they were held in St. Paul in 2008 but was seventh or worse at Nationals three of the last four years. The outlier was her famous third-place finish in 2014, when fourth-place Wagner made the Olympic team instead.

Nagasu would finish sixth this week if all skaters repeat their best Grand Prix season scores, though Nagasu received one Grand Prix start, while most others got two.

Courtney Hicks
Age: 20
Hometown: Chino Hills, Calif.
Credentials: 2015 NHK Trophy silver medalist

Hicks, the 2011 U.S. junior champion, notched the best Grand Prix finish by a U.S. woman other than Wagner and Gold in more than three years with her silver at NHK Trophy in Japan in November.

She’s been known to practice a triple Axel, not done by a U.S. woman since 2006 World champion Kimmie Meissner, but did not perform it in her two Grand Prix starts in the fall. She’ll almost certainly need to beat her best U.S. senior Nationals finish — fourth in her 2013 debut — to make her first Worlds team.

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