OMAHA, Neb. — Flawed, but still first.
Ashley Wagner became the first woman since Michelle Kwan in 2005 to win back-to-back titles in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, managing to hold off up-and-comer Gracie Gold despite three major mistakes Saturday night.
Wagner was subdued as she waited for her marks, surely thinking she'd blown her chance to repeat. When her score was announced and she saw she was still in first, a look of shock crossed her face.
Wagner finished with 188.84 points, about two ahead of Gold. Gold won the free skate – posting the second-highest score ever at the U.S. meet, no less. But the 17-year-old had too much ground to make up after a dismal performance Thursday night in the short program left her in ninth place, more than 13 points behind Wagner.
Earlier Saturday, Olympic silver medalists and 2011 world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White won their fifth straight dance title, matching a U.S. record. Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir won the pairs title.
There is something about defending the title that brings out the worst in the American women. Since 1990, Kwan is the only other woman to win consecutive titles (granted, she did win eight straight). Six women have won the last seven crowns, and the reigning champion has almost always had a total meltdown. Rachael Flatt is the only defending champ who even managed to stay on the podium the next year.
Wagner, though, seems to be made of different stuff. She's been rock solid since moving to California to train with John Nicks in the summer of 2011. She won the U.S. title last year, had the best finish by an American at worlds since 2007 and won the silver medal last month in the Grand Prix final.
And she sure looked loose as she came out from the dressing rooms, clapping along with the crowd to Agnes Zawadzki's "Rhapsody in Blue" music. Her opening triple flip-double toe loop-double toe combination was gorgeous, drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd. She also did a triple loop in and out of a spread eagle – incredibly difficult.
But she didn't have her usual fire, almost as if she was skating not to lose rather than skating to win. And then came the falls. She was off-balance in the air on the lutz, and couldn't right herself in time to save it. With the triple loop only seconds later, she didn't have time to regroup. She pulled herself together only to two-foot her last jump, the triple flip.
At 21, Wagner is a far more complete skater than Gold, and that's what made the difference. Skating to "Samson and Delilah," Wagner told a story while Gold just skated and jumped.
With blonde good looks and a made-for-the Olympics name, Gold has all the makings of that "next big thing" the United States has been craving. That she can skate only fueled the hype, and some were ready to put her on the Sochi medals stand after she won the U.S. junior title last year and finished second in the junior world championships.
But she's been wildly inconsistent this year, winning the silver medal at Cup of Russia after falling apart at Skate Canada. After botching her short program Thursday, she needed a dazzling performance just to have a chance at one of the spots on the world championships team. She came through, posting a 132.49 that was the second-highest score for a free skate at nationals. Sasha Cohen scored 134.03 in 2006, the year she won her only U.S. title.
"I stopped focusing on what was around me – the crowd, the screaming, the other skaters, the pressure, the expectations. I let it all go," Gold said. "I just pictured myself at my rink in Chicago and even the practices here – how I would skate if I was practicing. Just the feel of the knees, the feel of the ice, one thing at a time.
"I didn't get over my head with thoughts or expectations. I just went out there and skated like I know how to skate."
Gold's jumps are fabulous, easily the best of the entire field. Maybe the whole world. They're done with power, and her combinations are so smooth she looks like a stone skipping across the water. She did seven triples, and even Kim Yu-na would be impressed with her triple lutz-triple toe loop combination.
But skating is both sport and art, and Gold is going to have to add some substance between the jumps if she wants the prize to match her name. Her footwork was basic and most of her spins were adequate, and she didn't display that passion that makes a good program great.