Ashley Wagner

Preview: Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold headline Ladies’ field at U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Leave a comment

Four years after they represented the U.S. at the Vancouver Games, Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu return to the U.S. Championships this week in Boston for another shot at the Olympics, but they aren’t the headliners in the chase for the team’s three spots in Sochi.

Instead, such distinction belongs to reigning and two-time national champion Ashley Wagner, who just missed out on the Vancouver team by placing third in 2010, and teenager Gracie Gold, who vaulted to a second-place finish at Nationals a year ago in her senior debut.

The ladies skate Thursday and Saturday nights at TD Garden with the Olympic selections being announced Sunday at a noon press conference.

“I’ve been training really hard going into Nationals, which is obviously such an important event this year,” said Wagner, who at age 22 is the favorite for a third straight U.S. title. “I want to do everything that I can do make sure I’m ready.”

U.S. Figure Skating Championships Previews: Men | Women | Ice Dance | Pairs | Schedule

Gold will look to do the same after her first season on the senior Grand Prix circuit. A year ago at Nationals she was ninth after the short program – beset by nerves – before she won the free skate, launching her to a silver-medal finish.

“The senior ladies – this is a big event,” Gold told reporters last week on a conference call. “I just need to trust my training in order to have a steadier Nationals this year, but with the same great outcome.”

Any color of medal for the girl called Gold would put Gracie in a strong position to be named to one of the three spots on the U.S. team this year after she won bronze at Skate Canada and placed fourth at the Grand Prix stop in Tokyo.

But nothing is certain for Wagner or Gold as a flurry of talented skater nip at their boots for the chance to head to Russia.

Agnes Zawadzki is one of them, the 19-year-old Chicago native having placed third at the last two U.S. Championships.

Zawadzki had struggles through the Grand Prix season, however, placing sixth and seventh at two events after changing back to her old coach, Tom Zakrajsek, in October, who also works with reigning U.S. men’s champion Max Aaron.

“I felt like that definitely was not what I wanted to present for the season, especially with the Olympics approaching,” Zawadzki said in an interview with NBCOlympics.com. “But I sat I’ve felt more consistent and confident with Tom and he’s kicking my butt. We’re working so hard.”

Boston-based Christina Gao also had difficulty at her Grand Prix assignments, placing fourth at Skate Canada and eighth in Paris. She’s taken the year off from Harvard to focus on her Olympic quest, but will need to snap a streak of four straight fifth-place finishes at Nationals in order to have a chance to make the team.

“[The Boston skaters] have such great programs this year that when we’re training together it’s such a good energy prior to the Olympics,” Gao said. “I can only imagine what it will feel like inside TD Garden. I’m really excited because I have a ton of friends at Harvard who I’ve told need to come and get tickets so they can come and watch.”

But there are other skaters for fans – and competitors – to watch, as well. Nagasu is perhaps the most notable, having been fourth at the 2010 Olympics and recently placing third at the Cup of Russia in November, the season’s final Grand Prix stop. Like Gao, she’ll need to up a string of two-straight seventh-place finishes to earn a shot at Sochi.

Injuries have derailed Flatt’s efforts, the 2010 national champion now making a comeback of sorts at 21 years old. The Stanford junior qualified via regional and sectional events and – always known as a steady skater – will look to deliver two reliable programs in Boston.

Courtney Hicks, fourth at Nationals a year ago, is coming off a solid season in which she won two Senior B events, just a step below the Grand Prix level. The 18-year-old beat Gold at the season-opening U.S. Figure Skating Classic in September in Salt Lake City and was fifth at Skate Canada.

Samantha Cesario, 20, aims to build off of two top-five finishes on the Grand Prix circuit from the year while Polina Edmunds, the reigning U.S. junior champion, won two junior Grand Prix gold medals this season and looks to make a splash at the age of 15.

Two-time U.S. champion Alissa Czisny ended her Olympic bid earlier this season with an ongoing injury, while two-time U.S. medalist Caroline Zhang struggled to a 10th-place finish at Skate America in October.

Wagner, who has placed fourth (2012) and fifth (2013) at the last two World Championships, says that the third-place finish that left her off the team in 2010 at Nationals has certainly motivated her.

“2010 absolutely still drives me,” she told reporters last week. “I owe it to myself for everything that I’ve given up – the sacrifices, the struggles – to make it onto this Olympic team and to do everything that I possibly can to make it onto the podium.”

NBC will air live coverage of the Ladies’ free skate Saturday night from 8 to 11 p.m. Eastern, as well as host a livestream of the event on NBCOlympics.com.

Lipnitskaya, 15, skates to the lead at Russian Grand Prix

Leave a comment

At the end of her short program, 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya of Russia draws a heart on the ice, then scoops shavings off the rink, sprinkling them over her to finish.

The fragile finish is an emotional one, but Lipnitskaya was anything but fragile Friday at the Rostelecom Cup, where she captured the arena’s hearts and the short-program lead with a strong and assured skate against a more experienced field at the final Grand Prix of the figure skating season.

Competing in just her fourth senior Grand Prix, Lipnitskaya seeks a fourth medal – and second gold this season – leading 2012 World Champion Carolina Kostner, a veteran, and two-time U.S. medalist Agnes Zawadzki.

In the pairs competition in Moscow, no team had a completely clean skate, but four-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany had a safe lead over Russians Vera Bazarova and Yuri Larionov.

Lipnitskaya’s 72.24 was the second-best short program score of the season, behind 2010 Olympic silver medalist Mao Asada. Only Asada and Lipnitskaya have broken the 70-point mark so far this season.

Zawadzki, who had a disappointing seventh-place finish at the Cup of China earlier this month, skated a clean and decisive program herself, hitting her triple-triple combination and later a double Axel. Kostner was safely in second with a 67.75 while Zawadzki registered a 60.45.

Zawadzki eyes Sochi with a special friend by her side

The American’s score was just 0.01 better than 2008 U.S. champion Mirai Nagasu, who had a solid performance herself, edging ahead of Russia’s Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, who finished with a 60.16. Only 0.29 points separates third and fifth place.

Savchenko/Szolkowy, the bronze medalists at the Vancouver Games, skated beautifully through most of their short program, “When Winter Comes,” a piece they complement with icicle-like white-and-blue costumes.

But on their final element, a difficult throw triple Axel, Savchenko came down hard, two-footing her landing and then hitting the ice on her right upper thigh and buttocks. In the Kiss and Cry, the 29-year-old was seen grimacing as the scores came in, then began crying, her head in her lap.

There is no official report yet of whether or not Savchenko sustained an injury on the fall.

It was a season’s best for Bazarova/Larionov, who scored a 69.72 to Savchenko/Szolkowy’s 73.25. Canadians Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch were in third after Moscovitch fell on his triple toe jump. Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim were the highest American team, finishing in fifth.

Zawadzki, 19, was ecstatic with her performance, a wide grin beaming across her face following the program. She fist pumped as she made her way towards coach Tom Zakrajsek, saying, “That felt great!”

The American has been third the last two seasons at the U.S. Championships, and will look to place at least that high as Team USA has three ladies spots for the Sochi Games.

Russia, meanwhile, has two, one of which Lipnitskaya hopes she occupies. So far this season, she, Adelina Sotnikova and Anna Pogorilaya have won Grand Prix medals. Tuktamysheva is the reigning Russian national champion, and was third at the European Championships earlier this year, behind Sotnikova’s second-place finish.

Moscow preview: Fernandez, Kostner chase gold as Zawadzki aims for podium

Leave a comment

Figure skating lands in Moscow for the sixth Grand Prix of the season, the last qualifier for the Grand Prix Final, which is set for Dec. 5-8 in Japan.

While the men lost home favorite Yevgeny Plushenko last week to an injury, its field is still strong, led by Javier Fernandez, the reigning world bronze medalist.

American Agnes Zawadzki leads the Team USA effort, the two-time U.S. Championship bronze medalist looking to improve upon her seventh-place finish earlier this month at the Cup of China.

Russian skating fans will have plenty to cheer for in all four events, with medal contenders in each one. Below, an event-by-event breakdown.

MEN
There’s no Plushenko, but 18-year-old Maksim Kovtun will try and continue his push for Russia’s lone men’s singles berth for the Olympics with a strong showing at the Rostelecom Cup. In his senior Grand Prix debut, Kovtun was second earlier this month at the Cup of China. The teen was a disappointing 17th at the World Championships in March, which meant Russia earned just one Olympic spot.

French veteran Brian Joubert looks to make one final Olympic push in his career and is yet to compete this season, meaning his form is unkown. The 29-year-old Frenchman was sixth at the 2006 Olympics and has six World Championships medals to his name, including gold in 2007.

Breaking down the Grand Prix Final qualifying scenarios

Tatsuki Machida hasn’t skated competitively since winning gold at Skate America last month while two Americans – Richard Dornbush and Josh Farris – look for a podium finish to make their case for an Olympic spot.

Dornbush is the 2011 U.S. Championships silver medalist and Farris is the reigning Junior World Champion. Both Americans placed fifth at their respective Grand Prix openers this year, Farris at Skate Canada and Dornbush at Cup of China.

Fernandez is the favorite among this group, though he stumbled to a fifth-place finish of his own at the NHK Trophy two weeks ago.

LADIES
It’s the Russian surge that has been surprising this season on the ladies’ side, with Anna Pogorilaya and Adelina Sotnikova already securing spots in the Grand Prix Final and 14-year-old Yelena Radyonova (who isn’t eligible for the Olympics) on the bubble. In Moscow, it will be 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaya who will lead the home charge, coming off a Grand Prix gold at Skate Canada. The 2012 Junior World Champion is joined by Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, the reigning national champion who will turn 17 in December. Tuktamysheva was fourth at Skate America.

Wagner defends title in Paris

Like Fernandez, Carolina Kostner carries the favorite flag into Moscow, but also has a question mark floating over her head after a third-place finish at Cup of China this month. The 2012 world champion has five European Championship wins under her belt, including 2013, and is making another go at the Olympics after two lackluster finishes (ninth in 2006 and 16th in 2010).

For the Americans, Zawadzki is joined by the 2008 U.S. champion Mirai Nagasu, who was also fourth at the 2010 Vancouver Games. The 19-year-old Zawadzki was seventh at the Cup of China while Nagasu, 20, took eighth a week later in Tokyo. Both are looking for improvements in Moscow.

PAIRS
There will be no Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov, the reigning world champions, in the pairs competition, which instead is headlined by the team that has played second fiddle to the Russian duo for much of the last two years, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy.

The German pairs team owns four world championship golds, but the surging Russians replaced them atop the podium this past season. Savchenko/Szolkowy opened the year with a win at the Cup of China, though their total score was the fifth-highest by a team this season.

One of those teams to record a higher score than Savchenko/Szolkowy is Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch of Canada, who will serve as Savchenko/Szolkowy’s main rivals in Moscow. The Canadians were second to Volosozhar/Trankov at Skate America last month, after being fourth at the 2013 World Championships.

Russia’s Vera Bazarova and Yuri Laryonov will look for their first podium of the year after the 2012 Russian national champs finished fourth at the Trophee Eric Bompard last week. Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, another Russian pair, will chase a medal in Russia as well, having been third at Skate America last month.

Americans Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim want a strong performance in Moscow as they look to grab one of only two spots available in pairs for the U.S. in Sochi.

ICE DANCE
It was another gold medal for Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir last week in Paris, the 2010 Olympic champions moving towards a showdown with Meryl Davis and Charlie White in the Grand Prix Final. In Moscow, the Canadians’ teammates Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje will look for gold after winning silver at Skate Canada last month.

Weaver/Poje will go toe pick-to-toe pick with Russians Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Solviev of Russia, who won silver at the Cup of China last month. Bobrova/Solviev were bronze medalists at the 2013 World Championships, third fiddle to Davis/White and Virtue/Moir.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates of the U.S. would like to earn a second Grand Prix medal of the season having been third in Beijing. The duo was seventh at the World Championships this year after earning bronze at Four Continents in January.