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Pressure on Ashley Wagner at world championships

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Ashley Wagner‘s four-year plan has her peaking in 2018, not at the 2017 World Championships, but many call Wagner to carry the U.S. women at worlds in Helsinki next week.

“Next year is the year that I am, like, in it to kill,” she said. “This year is maintaining. This year is my chance to work out all of the kinks, figure out where I want to be mentally going into next year.”

Wagner, the 2016 World silver medalist, is the only skater of three American women on this year’s worlds team with prior worlds experience. She is the only one ranked higher than 20th in the world this season.

Normally, figure skating is an individual sport. But next week, the top two U.S. women’s results must add up to no greater than 13 (Wagner places third, and either U.S. champion Karen Chen or U.S. bronze medalist Mariah Bell places 10th or better, for example).

If not, the U.S. will have two rather than the maximum three women’s entries at the PyeongChang Olympics. The U.S. had three spots at four of the last five Olympics.

Anything less than three in 2018 would mean the U.S. is not keeping up with world power Russia and maybe even Canada and Japan. And it becomes that much harder for Wagner and everyone else to make the Olympic team.

“I know that I have a huge role in these three spots at these world championships,” Wagner said. “I need to set this team up as good as I possibly can, so that way the pressure’s off the other girls.”

The others are the 17-year-old Chen, the surprise winner at the U.S. Championships in January, who then placed 12th at February’s Four Continents Championships, an event that doesn’t include Europeans. Chen said she suffered from nerves, a flu and foot pain caused by broken boots at Four Continents.

And Bell, who took silver at October’s Skate America behind training partner Wagner. Bell, 20, finished sixth at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue in South Korea, where she competed with an amount of pressure she had never before felt.

Of skaters entered at worlds, Bell has the 10th-best total score this season. The skater with the 12th-best total in the worlds field is more than nine points shy of Bell. Chen comes in seeded 16th.

“The tough thing about this worlds is that we have two rookies going into a very stressful event,” Wagner said. “So these two girls are in a really tough position, and I really feel for them. It’s kind of like you have to buckle up and deal with this, and that’s like your only option.”

There is reason for optimism, should Wagner put up something close to the performance of her life from last year’s worlds, where she became the first U.S. women’s medalist in a decade.

“Success in Finland is getting onto that podium,” Wagner said.

But Wagner is nearing the end of her (so far) least impressive season in probably six years. She is seeded eighth at worlds by this season’s top international scores.

She failed to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final for the first time since 2011. She was beaten at nationals despite longtime rival Gracie Gold underperforming.

However, Wagner’s goal at nationals wasn’t to win, but to finish in the top three to make the worlds team. She called the runner-up result “perfect.” She focused the last two months on firming up the areas where she lost points.

“Even though to some on the outside looking in, it wouldn’t look like it was the most successful season for me,” Wagner said. “I think at the end of the day this season has been exactly what I needed it to be.”

The favorite in Helsinki is clearly Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva, who hasn’t lost since November 2015 and can become the first repeat world champion since Michelle Kwan in 2001.

Wagner said she hasn’t watched any of Medvedeva’s programs this season.

“The only thing that I know about is her long program music is not my favorite piece of music,” Wagner said, alluding to Medvedeva’s choice of sound from “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” a 2011 film relating to the 9/11 attacks. The music includes, at one point, the voice of George W. Bush declaring that two airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center.

But Wagner was effusive of Medvedeva, the latest in a string of Russian Olympic and world champions dating to the Sochi Olympics.

“She is a set bar that everybody is chasing after, and I think in years past that bar was always changing,” Wagner said. “Now it’s one set thing I know exactly the quality of skating I have to reach, I know exactly the technical program that I have to be able to accomplish.”

Wagner, a seasoned 25 years old, noted a key point this week. She is the only active women’s skater in her class, with her length of experience, who hasn’t taken a break.

Italian Carolina Kostner is 30, but she’s competing at worlds for the first time since 2014, following two seasons off. Japan’s three-time world champion Mao Asada is 26, but she took a season off after Sochi and this year failed to make the worlds team.

Wagner reflected on her world silver medal and her three national championships. She knows they mean nothing next week.

“I have to prove myself all over again,” she said.

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MORE: Meryl Davis, Charlie White on why they’re not defending Olympic title

NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

Alysa Liu repeats as U.S. figure skating champion at age 14

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Alysa Liu repeated as U.S. figure skating champion, continuing her build toward the 2022 Beijing Olympics by becoming the first woman to land a quadruple jump (albeit under-rotated) at the national championships.

Liu, who last year became the youngest U.S. champion in history at 13, rallied from a short-program deficit to distance Mariah Bell by 10.31 points in Greensboro, N.C. Liu became the first repeat women’s champion since Ashley Wagner in 2013, performing under pressure as the last skater going after Bell brought the house down.

“I was like, wow,” Liu said of Bell. “I was kind of clapping along with the crowd. I guess I was kind of inspired by her emotion and her happiness. I guess that inspired me at the end of my program to relax and be happy and just kind of be aware of the moment.”

Bradie Tennell, the short-program leader, dropped to third after falling on a triple loop.

The night’s emotional moment occurred two hours earlier. Gracie Gold, in her first nationals in three years, was brought to tears after coming back from an eating disorder, depression and anxiety.

“The full arena pulling for my existence, like, on the ice,” said Gold, who finished 12th, lacking the most difficult jumping combinations but determined to continue next season. “I want everything now when I demand it, but I have to remind myself of that it is a progression. And next, we just kind of keep the train going.”

More on Gold’s night here.

Nationals continue Saturday with the pairs’ free skate, free dance and the men’s short program, live on NBC Sports.

NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

Liu nailed a pair of triple Axels — as she did last year — and (barely) an under-rotated quad Lutz in her free skate. No other active U.S. senior woman has landed either of those jumps in competition. At least one is necessary to contend with the world’s best — Russians competing at the European Championships this week.

Liu is too young to compete on the senior international level until the 2022 Olympic season. She ranks third in the world among junior skaters this season, behind two Russians, going into March’s junior world championships.

Bell, the oldest skater in the last group at 23, had her best nationals result after bronze medals in 2017 and 2019. She skated clean with seven triple jumps, much to the delight of her coaches at rink level — Rafael Arutunian and Olympian Adam Rippon.

Tennell, who couldn’t bend one of her arms on Wednesday, fell on the last of her 10 jumps in the free skate, a triple loop.

For the second straight year, Tennell topped the nationals short program, fell in the free skate and dropped down the podium. Stunning given Tennell broke through in the 2017-18 season as the only elite international skater without a fall going into the Olympics.

Bell and Tennell, the 2018 U.S. champion, will likely make up March’s senior world team for a second straight year. A U.S. Figure Skating committee makes that decision.

Earlier, Madison Chock and Evan Bates topped the rhythm dance with 87.63 points, taking a 1.32-point lead over two-time defending champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue going into Saturday’s free dance. They could become the first U.S. skater, couple or pair to go five years between national titles in many decades.

Chock and Bates came out of the Sochi Olympics as the top U.S. couple, succeeding Meryl Davis and Charlie White. But they fell behind both Hubbell and Donohue and Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani going into the PyeongChang Olympics.

After that, Chock underwent ankle surgery. The couple moved from Michigan to Montreal. They now train with Hubbell and Donohue and world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron.

“We’re just finding our groove right now,” Bates said. “It feels like we’re just having a bit of a renaissance with our career.”

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MORE: Vincent Zhou put Ivy League classes on hold to return to figure skating

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

Gracie Gold in tears at figure skating nationals after emotional comeback

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GREENSBORO, N.C. – Gracie Gold received a standing ovation from the crowd inside the Greensboro Coliseum after her free skate Friday night. It was her first nationals performance in three years after time away from the sport to treat depression, anxiety and an eating disorder.

“Truthfully, I was almost so overwhelmed that I was just very much existing in the moment because I couldn’t exist anywhere else,” she said of being brought to tears at center ice when her program concluded. “Then, obviously, the audience reaction I felt like was very powerful.”

Gold has received other standing ovations in the past, at the conclusions of her two national title-winning free skates in 2014 and 2016.

“It reminded me a little bit more of 2014, where, yes, I had skated well but people were also standing because it was semi-clear that I had won aka I had qualified for the Olympics,” she said. “People were up before the end. It had that kind of energy where even as I was getting into the knee slide, it felt like it got bigger. Obviously, the skating didn’t warrant a full-arena standing ‘O.’ It didn’t.”

She was 13th after Thursday’s short program and 12th overall in a field of 18 skaters. In her free skate, set to Sara Bareilles’ “She Used to be Mine,” Gold landed four triple jumps but several planned triples ended up doubles or singles.

Eagle-eyed fans might have noticed a moth tattoo peaking out of her costume. She explained that she got it during her retirement, and it had a special meaning.

“It’s representative of a moment that I had in treatment with some of the other girls,” she said. “We were discussing tattoos, and a lot of them had different ink. One had had a skull, and she was gonna change it into a moth. I asked her, why a moth? She said, ‘It’s because they always find the light.’ I kid you not, a large black moth came and landed in the middle of our table and didn’t move. So, in retirement, I of course found my way into a tattoo parlor. And yes, now I have a piece.”

Audiences haven’t seen the last of her, she said. Gold isn’t finished with the comeback and has plans to skate next season.

“I think we’ve earned that,” she said.

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NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.