OMAHA, Neb. — Ashley Wagner is bringing a halt to the roller coaster that has been U.S. women's figure skating.
The defending champion did exactly what everyone expected – hoped – she would do, easily winning the short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Thursday night. Her score of 67.57 was more than two points ahead of Agnes Zawadzki, and three points better than 2008 U.S. champion Mirai Nagasu. The free skate is Saturday night.
The Americans have been looking for their next big thing since Michelle Kwan hung up her skates. Six women have won the last seven titles, and no one since Kwan in 2005 has strung together two in a row. Nagasu, Rachael Flatt, Alissa Czisny – they've all teased fans with their possibility only to fall apart on the world's biggest stages.
But Wagner has the psyche and the skills to be a champion, and she isn't afraid of the spotlight. Just like Kwan in her day, she embraces the expectations and then goes out and delivers.
Wearing a gorgeous burgundy dress with a black underskirt, she had the audience mesmerized from the time she stepped on the ice. She skated with such command the audience as afraid to take their eyes off of her for fear they might miss something. Though she didn't do a triple-triple combination like Zawadzki or Nagasu, all of her jumps were done with such high quality they seemed that much better. And her spins are, simply exquisite. They were so perfectly centered she might as well have been using a protractor.
When she finished, she gave a satisfied nod and small clap of her hands before breaking into a wide grin.
Only Zawadzki, who won last year's short program with a record score for nationals, was left to skate. But any chance she had of passing Wagner ended when she tumbled to the ice on her double axel.
Still, with the rest of her program packed with power, she had enough to move ahead of Nagasu. She really should have gotten clearance from an air traffic controller she had so much distance on her triple toe loop-triple toe loop combo, and her speed would impress any sprinter.
After last year, however, Nagasu is sure to be happy to be in the top three.
Nagasu is quite possibly the most talented skater the United States has. Her speed, the power with which she jumps, her ability to hear music and to bring a program to life – those are the qualities that make figure skating so magical, and Nagasu has them all.
Her psyche, however, has been a different story.
Since finishing fourth overall at the Vancouver Olympics and winning the short program at the world championships a month later, she's been on a downward spiral. She bombed her free skate at those 2010 worlds and wound up seventh. She didn't make the world team the following year, dropping from first after the short program at nationals to third.
And last year was simply horrid. Nagasu was never even a factor at nationals and wound up seventh.
"I did not have the greatest of seasons last year, so this has really been a comeback year," she said. "With each day of training, I'm able to regain my confidence a little bit."
Nagasu parted ways with coach Frank Carroll, who has moved his training base from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, and now trains closer to home. She's also gone back to the things that worked when she was a phenom, choosing big band music for her short program.
Though she won the bronze medal at NHK Trophy, Nagasu arrived here with little, if any, fanfare. And with the pressure off, Nagasu reminded everyone of why there were such high expectations in the first place.
Her jumps were done with great speed and control, and she had one of the few clean triple-triple combinations of the night. Her spins were breathtaking for their intricacy and elegance, and even Gumby would be a little green(er) at her flexibility. But what really set her program apart was how seamless it was, one element flowing into another so that it was impossible to tell what was athletics and what was art.
The only flaw was the blank expression on her face; she didn't break into her trademark smile until the very end.
"I feel like the little girl from ages ago who wanted to go to the Olympics and medal," Nagasu said. "I feel like I've been trying to regain that memory. Sometimes it's hard, but it's been a great journey."
Earlier Thursday, Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir took a big step toward their first pairs title, easily winning the short program. With 62.27, they've got a whopping nine-point lead on Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay going into Saturday's free skate.