BOSTON – The U.S. women sure know how to create drama.
Gracie Gold won her first title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday night, all but ensuring herself a spot at the Sochi Olympics. But the remaining two spots are still up for grabs after two-time champion Ashley Wagner's stunning meltdown left her in fourth place.
The Olympic team will be announced Sunday afternoon, and U.S. Figure Skating isn't locked into sending the top three women from nationals. It doesn't even have to take the national champion. Unlike track and field or swimming, where the clock is the ultimate judge, U.S. Figure Skating will take previous performances into account in hopes of sending the strongest, most competitive teams.
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That would seem to work in Wagner's favor. She's the only American woman who's done anything of note internationally the last two seasons, winning back-to-back medals at the Grand Prix final and finishing in the top five at the last two world championships.
But at 15, runner-up Polina Edmunds is the future of American skating and being on the sport's biggest stage could be good for her development. Mirai Nagasu's third-place performance reminded everyone of what a huge natural talent she is. But consistency has never been her strong suit, with her career bottoming out since she finished fourth at the Vancouver Olympics.
All of this uncertainty could have been avoided had Wagner skated cleanly. Or at least not made so many mistakes.
After a disappointing short program left her in fourth place, Wagner said she planned to come out fighting, that she wanted to earn her trip to Sochi, not be given a spot. And she sure looked ready, bopping to the arena music and waving to someone in the crowd when she took the ice for warm-ups. When it was her turn to skate, she gave coach Rafael Arutunian a big smile and banged her hands twice on the board – then detoured to give Christina Gao an encouraging hug.
She was soon in need of one herself.
Wagner managed only four clean triples, and her confidence disappeared after she two-footed the first jump and fell on the second of her opening triple-triple combination. She didn't have any of her usual spunk or fire, and was so painfully slow and cautious it sucked all the energy out of the building.
She fell on a triple loop and appeared to two-foot another triple flip in a triple-double combo that she watered down from a planned triple-double-double. Tears filled her eyes when she finished, and she repeatedly mouthed, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
When her scores – 118.03 for the free skate, 182.74 total – were announced, Wagner again said, "I'm sorry."
With Edmunds, Nagasu and Gold still to go, Wagner needed at least one of them to make multiple mistakes. None of them did.
Gold lived up to her name with a program that is sure to draw notice from the Russians and Japanese. She's always had the jumps, but there's a depth to her skating since she switched to Frank Carroll last fall. Skating to "Sleeping Beauty," she displayed a soft elegance, acknowledging her music with soft tilts of her head and graceful extensions of her fingers.
Her spins are far improved, and she has a connection with the audience that's almost magnetic. When she finished, her jaw dropped and a big grin spread across her face. When her winning scores were announced, she jumped to her feet, thrust her right fist in the air and shouted, "Yes! Yes!"