Russian Alina Zagitova‘s Olympic-medal-worthy free skate at Grand Prix France meant one thing for American Ashley Wagner.
Wagner essentially must win Skate America next week to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final, the biggest international competition before February’s Olympics.
Zagitova, the 15-year-old world junior champion, leaped from fifth after Friday’s short program to win in Grenoble on Saturday.
The training partner of Olympic favorite Yevgenia Medvedeva recorded the third-highest free-skate score under a 13-year-old judging system.
That’s 151.34 points with seven triple jumps — all in the second half of the four-minute program to earn 10 percent bonus.
Only Medvedeva has scored higher — 160.46 and 154.40 at her last two events of an undefeated 2016-17 season.
Zagitova outclassed a field headlined by world silver medalist Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada.
Osmond, who led by 1.26 after the short program, fell on a triple loop and singled an Axel in her free skate to fall to third place — 7.03 behind Zagitova.
Another Russian, Maria Sotskova, remained in second place, 5.02 back of Zagitova, with a personal-best 208.78 points.
Medvedeva, Zagitova and Sotskova are all going to the Grand Prix Final, which takes the top six skaters from the fall Grand Prix season. Russia can send three women to the Olympics, and these are the clear favorites to be chosen after nationals in late December.
Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy (the only woman from the top six in Sochi skating this season) and Osmond are also qualified for the Grand Prix Final.
The last Grand Prix Final spot will be decided at Skate America in Lake Placid, N.Y., next week.
It will go to one of three skaters — Russian Polina Tsurskaya, Japanese Wakaba Higuchi or Wagner.
Higuchi is the clubhouse leader with second- and third-place finishes in her two Grand Prix starts this fall. She is the last hope for Japan to keep a streak of qualifying at least one woman for the Grand Prix Final for a 17th straight year.
Japan has promising skaters, but zero Olympic medal favorites and only two women’s spots in PyeongChang. It had the maximum three spots at the Olympics in 2006, 2010 and 2014.
Wagner and Tsurskaya are tied in Grand Prix points, having finished third in their respective events earlier this fall.
If either Wagner or Tsurskaya wins Skate America, she goes to the Grand Prix Final.
A Skate America win would be a major resume boost for Wagner, since the three-woman U.S. Olympic team picks will be based not only on January’s nationals results but also from finishes in major competition the previous two seasons.
Wagner is the only active U.S. woman to win a Grand Prix (she’s done it five times) and the only one to make a Grand Prix Final in 10 years (also five times).
Wagner could make the Grand Prix Final with a runner-up at Skate America.
In that case, Tsurskaya would obviously have to finish lower, plus Wagner would need a personal best by more than 20 points to beat Higuchi via tiebreaker scores.
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Internationaux de France
1. Alina Zagitova (RUS) — 213.80
2. Maria Sotskova (RUS) — 208.78
3. Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN) — 206.77
10. Polina Edmunds (USA) — 157.77