No clear cut leader after ladies short at U.S. Nationals

Mirai Nagasu currently leads the ladies after the Short Program at the 2011 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

It was a great night for US Figure Skating with the top four ladies skating lights out, each one fighting for a chance to become the 2011 US National Champion. The competition is so close that heading into Saturday’s freeskate, each lady can consider herself tied for first place.

In reality, 2008 US Champion and 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu leads the way with a score of 63.35 points. Nagasu has been queen of the short program in recent competitions, and has proven that when she brings the goods, she will is the one to beat.

“The short program isn’t a piece of cake for me, but I’m usually able to go out there and pull it out more because I’m not scared as much that I am going to run out of energy,” Nagasu explained. “In a competition, my breathing gets a little bit shallow because I have to think about everything even breathing. Going in to the long program, I am going to take deep breaths and do what I do in practice.”

Nagasu, now a mature seventeen-year-old, skated with confidence and blazing speed in her The Witches of Eastwick short program. She opened with a textbook triple Lutz-double toe loop combination, and closed with her signature level four layback spin. The only mistake, if it is even to be noted, was an edge call on her solo triple flip jump out of footwork.

“I’ve been competing like a chicken all year except in France,” Nagasu admitted with her typical delicious communication style. “I was able to step it up to the plate (tonight). I’ve been working my butt off. There are always things that can be better, and I was a little nervous that I hadn’t worked as hard as I could have… You know, I have to do jumps anyway, I figured why not just go and land them and do my best. I’m really glad that I was able to do my best today.”

The reigning silver medalist was her usual playful self, embracing the character of a girl pulling the petals from a daisy in a ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ exercise. Her component scores were second to only Rachael Flatt’s, and she heads into the freeskate with just a slim .85 points margin over 2009 Champion Alissa Czisny.

“I was given a little skit to do before my program so everyone would know that I was picking up a daisy,” Nagasu explained. “I got nervous and forgot about it, but then I remembered. I kind of rushed through it because the clock was right in front of me, and I thought I was running out of time. I probably look like a maniac, but I’m glad I followed through on my promise to do it and got it done.”

Czisny, skating first of the medal contenders, performed with much-improved confidence and composure, and proved that her successful Grand Prix season was not a fluke.

“I was happy with my performance tonight. I really went out there to just try and stay focused on what we have been working on,” Czisny said after her skate. “I took my time, and really connected with the audience tonight. I think that the Grand Prix Final season has given me more confidence to know that I can go out there and do my job when I have to. I’ve learned so many things this year, and so to be able to come out here and skate so well is very satisfying.”

The program, set to music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold was vintage Czisny- chock full of elegance, emotion, and her trademark world-class spins. She heads into the freeskate with a total of 62.50 points.

“I know that people who are behind me, believe in me,” Czisny mentioned proudly. “I’m so grateful to have that every day especially for (coaches) Yuka (Sato) and Jason (Dungjen) who have helped me to overcome a lot of doubts.”

The Grand Prix Final champion, like Nagasu, did receive an edge call on her triple flip jump, the only small error of the program. However, Czisny also earned positive grades of execution on all of her other elements, including a more than three and a half points in total for her spins.

“Nationals has always been a little bit of a scary competition for me,” admitted the former champion. “To be able to come back and skate a program like that after last year was a little bit emotional.”

Skating to a brand new short program, Flatt skated with more freedom and joie de vivre than she has in a long time. Flatt more than lived up to the task of skating to one of multinational champion Michelle Kwan’s iconic pieces of music, East of Eden.

“I think that things went pretty well for the debut of my new short program,” said the confident eighteen-year-old. “The program is only about a month old, and it was a very strong showing. I was a little disappointed that I did not get the triple-triple in. I’ve been training it very well at home in practice, but I was just a little slow going in to it. It is a great start to the competition.”

With a breath-taking step sequence and a element list chock full of positive grades of execution, Flatt earned the highest component scores of the night. Her total score of 62.32 points is less than a point than Nagasu’s total, and keeps her hopes of being the first US Champion to repeat since Michelle Kwan in 2004-05.

“I’m very happy to be in third, but it’s always nice to be in first,” admitted the reigning champion. “This always gives me motivation to get as many points as I can get in my long program, and it has been going very well in training. I’m confident that I will do a strong program and have a great competition.”

Newcomer Agnes Zawadzki, the 2010 US Junior Champion, earned the highest technical marks of the evening landing a strong triple toe loop-triple toe loop combination to open. The sixteen-year-old earned nearly three points of grade of execution for her jump elements, and received no less than .21 points more than each one of her elements’ base value.

“I was really happy with everything. I stuck with my training plan, and took one thing at a time,” Zawadzki explained. “I’ve been working on my mental toughness, and I’ve been doing really well with that, so I’m going to stick with that in the freeskate.”

Skating a mambo medley in a sexy fluorescent pink dress, the reigning Junior Worlds silver medalist performed sassy and bold choreography with gusto. Zawadzki earned a personal best 61.54 points for her efforts.

“I wasn’t really thinking about placement when I came off the ice,” admitted the reigning Junior World silver medalist. “I want to go to Worlds this year, so I’m really ready for the long.”

Finding herself in familiar territory, sixteen-year-old Christina Gao equaled her finish from last season, and finished in fifth place with 58.43 points. The Canadian-trained Gao opened with a strong triple flip-triple toe loop combination, but struggled on the easiest jump in her program- a double Axel.

“Overall I am pretty happy with how things went because I landed my triple flip-triple toe, which I’ve actually only done once this season in a short program,” Gao remarked. “My double Axel was shaky, but that jump isn’t really my best anyway. So I’m glad that I landed it anyway.”

In a sleek black dress with a jeweled choker neckline, the two-time Junior Grand Prix Finalist transformed herself from little girl to sophisticated woman in just one season. Gao’s program to Mendelssohn’s Concerto in E minor displayed an elegant side that compliments her athletic prowess.

“I think that I look more mature this year,” she declared. “I like my music and my costumes a lot more. I think that is just a better overall package this season.”

Another newcomer, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Lam, burst on to the scene earlier this season when she was the only American lady to win a Junior Grand Prix event. After finishing in eighth place on the junior level last season, Lam finds herself in sixth place, and in the final flight of ladies who will compete for medals on Saturday.

“The performance was probably the best that I have had this season,” Lam decided. “I tried to show the audience that I was telling a story of what I thought the music is about. I think my jumps were pretty strong, and I think that my program was pretty good.”

Lam skated to Sartori’s Con Te Patiro,and landed the traditional triple Lutz-double toe loop, triple flip, double Axel senior lady technical content. Coached by Olympic silver medalist Dianne DeLeeuw-Chapman, Lam earned positive grades of execution on each of her technical elements as well.

“It was a little bit of pressure to perform,” said Lam. “I know that there are a lot of people supporting me at home, so that helps a lot.”

Reigning bronze medalist Ashley Wagner, suffering with the affects of the flu, struggled once again with the short program at US Nationals, making mistakes on all of her jump elements. With a score of 54.63 points, the former world team member must play catch up in the freeskate in order to make a return trip to the podium.

“I think I was just really tense going out there,” Wagner said with disappointment in her voice. “I’m coming in to this with the flu, not that that is any excuse, but I think I just got overwhelmed with the situation and with everything that was on my plate.”

Finishing in eighth place is thirteen-year-old Junior Grand Prix Finalist Yasmin Siraj with 49.91 points. Nineteen-year-old Morgan Bell, in her first trip to Nationals on any level, finished in ninth place with 49.73 points, while seventeen-year-old former Junior World Champion Caroline Zhang continued her struggle to move back up the standings by finishing in tenth place with 48.48 points.

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