Christina Gao

Christina Gao

Christina Gao retires from figure skating

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Christina Gao, a six-time competitor at the U.S. Championships, has retired from figure skating to concentrate on her studies at Harvard, according to Icenetwork.com.

Gao, 21, finished fifth at the U.S. Championships as a 15-year-old in 2010, and also fifth at the next three U.S. Championships. She fell to eighth at the 2014 U.S. Championships, where she entered as a threat to make the U.S. Olympic team, and 11th at this past season’s Nationals.

Gao took second at 2012 Skate America, which helped her qualify for that season’s Grand Prix Final, where she finished sixth.

Gao’s retirement follows that of Samantha Cesario, who succeeded Gao as the fifth-place finisher at the 2014 and 2015 U.S. Championships.

Russian Olympic champions left out of Grand Prix assignments

Boston figure skaters under pressure on home ice at U.S. Championships

Ross Miner
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BOSTON — When it was announced that the U.S. Championships would be held at TD Garden in Boston in 2014 two years ago, pairs team Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir looked at one another and said, “Oh no.”

The team, having been fifth at Nationals for two years running, knew that the pressure mounted on their shoulders to do well in the town they called home would be even greater seeing that it was an Olympic year.

“It’s really hard skating in front of people you know,” Shnapir told reporters Thursday evening. “We do little exhibitions on Friday night at the Skating Club of Boston and those are some of the most nerve-wracking performances for us because those are all people that we know. There’s this feeling of expectation that we have to do well.”

What is there to be said about “home-ice” advantage? None of the four Olympic hopeful skating this weekend – Castelli/Shnapir, Christina Gao and Ross Miner – train at TD Garden, and the pressure mounted on them in front of a crowd can be stifling – well, “freezing” if you may.

“We were pretty nervous,” Shnapir added.

Castelli/Shnapir skated last in the pairs short program, adding to the drama of the occasion.

“I’m glad it’s finally here,” Miner said of Nationals on Thursday. “The waiting, if you ask many of us, is sometimes the hardest part. Once you get into the swing of it it’s kind of like, ‘OK, we’re into a competition now. This is normal.’ It’s the waiting that’s hard.”

U.S. Championships: Ice Dance Preview | Men’s Preview | Schedule | Short Program Start Orders

Miner was second at Nationals a year ago, while Gao has been fifth four straight years. Both – like a Castelli/Shnapir – need a top-level performances over the weekend to seal a their respective spots on the Sochi team.

“It was definitely challenging, but as soon as we hit our spot – as soon as we heard our names called and we felt that energy – all that nervousness just left,” Shnapir explained. “We rode that wave and will try and ride it through Saturday.”

Pennsylvania native and Los Angeles-based skater Adam Rippon, the 2012 silver medalist, doesn’t buy the home-ice advantage – or pressure that goes along with it, however.

“Every situation and every arena is what you make it,” Rippon said. “I can tell you that I went to Bulgaria three times and by the third time I felt like I was on home ice. It’s all relative.”

But it’s relatively high-pressure for Castelli/Shnapir, Gao and Miner, all who need strong Nationals performances – and a little help from the crowd – to book their respective spots in Sochi.

Castelli, Shnapir dazzle in pairs short program

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

Ashley Wagner
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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.