It is difficult to explain what it was like to be in the audience for the Championship Ladies short program at the 2008 U.S. Championships in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
The reigning silver medalist is out with an injury, the current champion makes a major mistake and is somehow still pleased with her performance, and then you have last year’s bronze medalist who has a complete meltdown. Oh, and did I mention that the anointed up-and-comer has a mini disaster of her own?
Sounds like a downright dreadful competition.
But then you have skaters like Mirai Nagasu (Pasadena FSC), who surprised many by skating a performance for the ages. In her debut, she destroyed her competition along the way to place first in this tight field of talented ladies.
Or how about Ashley Wagner (Washington FSC), the 16-year-old self described “old lady” also making her debut in this competition? Not only did she land the most difficult combination jump among women this season, but she is sitting in second place behind Nagasu with an enchanting performance that brought the audience to their feet.
Following Wagner, is the “veteran” of the bunch – Rachael Flatt (Broadmoor SC). Flatt is skating in her second championships and is currently in third place. The 2007-08 Junior Grand Prix Final silver medalist also landed a difficult triple-triple combination, and she performed with a maturity well beyond her tender years.
A high school freshman, Nagasu electrified the audience with a mesmerizing short program choc full of technical mastery and complimented with a youthful exuberance that just can’t be taught.
“It was really exciting that the crowd got really into it,” said the tiny skater. “It was just pure fun out there, and that is what I am here to do. I just want to continue doing that.”
Nagasu opened her program, choreographed to the zippy tune I Got Rhythm, with a zinger of a triple lutz-triple toe combination – a first for her in competition.
“I just wanted to land my triple-triple,” Nagasu confidently admitted, “and just to be in first right now is really is exciting. But I’m not going to let any of the pressure of being in first bother me for the freeskate.”
The reigning Junior Worlds silver medalist, who added a nifty triple flip from footwork and a double Axel to complete her jumping requirements, earned a whopping 70.23 points for her first championship level short program. However, she admitted to being nervous leading into the competition, and that caused some trouble for her.
“Last night I couldn’t sleep because I was so excited to perform,” Nagasu said with a giggle. “So I got in trouble with my mom because she wanted me to get my rest. I just kept mentally visualizing the performance in my head, and that is why I couldn’t sleep because I was so excited.”
Nagasu delivered a well-balanced program for which she was rewarded with a level of four on all of her spins and her spiral sequence. In addition, the 14-year-old earned high program component scores, easily besting reigning champion Kimmie Meissner in that department.
“Wow! That’s exciting,” said last year’s Junior champion, with surprise in her voice. “I didn’t realize that I was ahead of (Meissner) by twelve points.”
Like the leader, Wagner opened her program with a triple-triple combination, but hers was a triple Lutz coupled with a more difficult triple loop, which earned her 11.57 points. She also completed a triple flip and a double Axel in her routine to Henry VIII by Saint-Saens, and is solidly in second place with a score of 65.15 points.
“I was coming here hoping to skate a nice clean program,” said Wagner. “I just went out there for my senior national debut and thought I might as well put on a show.”
Wagner won bronze medals at both the Junior World Championships, the junior level at the U.S. Championships last season, and 2007 Trophee Eric Bompard, and her experience certainly paid off here.
“I really think the (junior circuit) has helped,” admitted Wagner. “The ladies within it are really inspiring and make me work harder. They have really helped me prepare for the senior level.”
Wagner’s program painted a more sophisticated picture than some of her other competitors attempted, and she used her long limbs and all-American girl looks to her advantage. Her score was a personal best by over 13 points.
Flatt skated immediately after Nagasu, and soaked up all of the positive energy that she could, and it worked. The 15-year-old chose to open her program with a layback spin and an easy triple flip. But then, she laid down a gauntlet of her own when she landed her triple Lutz-triple toe combination that earned her 10.57 points.
“I can’t explain how happy I am right now,” Flatt said, as she got off the ice. “It’s so great to know that I skated my best at the end of the season.”
The Colorado native felt every note of her music to Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So, coupled with her technical content, earned high praise from the judging panel on her program components.
“When I heard this music originally, I knew that I wanted to skate to it immediately,” explained Flatt. “I have so many people helping me with this program, and it has really come along way since the beginning of the season.”
Flatt is comfortable with her placement leading into the free skate, and is motivated to continue her run for a spot on the podium. “I think that at this nationals anything can happen. I just hope that I can skate even better in my free skate than I did tonight.”
Sitting in fourth place, Meissner (University of Delaware FSC) started out with an elegant spiral sequence, but then immediately made a mistake by falling on an underrotated triple flip attempt.
“My flip was just a silly mistake,” said the 2007-08 Grand Prix Finalist. “I’ve been having great practices, and I felt very confident in myself. I said to myself, ‘‘alright Kimmie, there are no falls in figure skating!’ I have experience in dealing with falls from other competitions, so I know how to recover from them.”
Meissner salvaged her program when she landed her triple Lutz-double toe combination, and seemed satisfied with her skate, though she was in first place when she received her scores.
“I thought the performance as a whole was a good thing,” said the 18-year-old. “I was really happy to be out in front of a U.S. audience.”
The 2006 World Champion is more than 12 points out of the lead, and will have to pull out all of the stops if she expects to retain her title.
Another surprise is Katrina Hacker (SC of Boston), who skated an elegant program to the soundtrack from Love Story, and is in fifth place after the short program.
“I really wanted to skate well,” admitted the Eastern Sectional champion, “and I knew that I was training well. I wanted my skate to represent my training. I guess that I wish I could have done a solid triple loop. I turned out of the loop, but I did receive credit for landing it, so I’m happy with it.”
Hacker does not have the high level jump content that the current leaders do, but the 17-year-old made up for that with level 4 elements that received positive GOEs.
“I think that me doing what I know I can do, and do it well, is the best game plan,” said the college-bound high school senior. “There may be people who are better jumpers, but I just do what I can do, and I like what I do.”
In her first nationals on the championship level, Hacker is surprised to be in this position going into the free skate.
“I had no idea how anybody else skated,” said Hacker, “and I can only control how I skate. I’m just going to do my long the way I always do it. We just added a triple Lutz-double toe to the program, and that is something new since [winning] sectionals.”
In sixth place in her 8th appearance at the U.S. Championships, is Beatrisa Liang (All Year FSC). Liang started her routine to The Sorcerer’s Apprentice with a strong flying sit spin, but then popped her Lutz into a single, which took her out of contention almost immediately.
“Throughout the program, I didn’t really take my time,” said an upbeat Liang. “I think that I got a little bit ahead of myself, and that is something that I do a lot in competitions. I really need to train myself to calm down and take each element one at a time.”
Liang’s program, choreographed by men’s competitor Braden Overett, was delightful even with the mistake, and highlighted the 19-year-old’s trademark fighting spirit throughout. After the miscue, Liang finished strong, landing her triple flip and earning good levels on most of her elements to earn a total of 55.10 points overall.
“I know I have to push through everything, and even when I make a mistake, I still have to leave that behind,” explained Liang. “I really think that I did that, and I really put forth all of my effort in all of the other elements.”
The talk of the championships has been surrounding Caroline Zhang, the reigning Junior World Champion and this year’s 4th place finisher at the Grand Prix Final. However, Zhang failed to live up to the talk, and succumbed to the pressure of being “the next great one” as she made two costly jumping mistakes in her program.
Zhang opened with an attempt at a triple flip-triple toe combination, but the triple toe was called underrotated by the Technical Specialist, so she only received 4.37 points for her attempt. On her next element, the triple Lutz, the 14-year-old again failed to fully rotate the jump, which killed any hope of her skating in the final group in the freeskate.
As usual, Zhang was rewarded for her superior spins and spiral sequence, but she was not able to overcome her jumping shortcomings, and had to settle for seventh place. Last year’s junior silver medalist scored a disappointing 53.49 points for this program, making it near impossible to earn a spot on the podium on Saturday night.
Melissa Bulanhagui skated a fun program to music from the soundtrack The Pink Panther to finish in eighth place with 52.77 points. A crowd favorite, the Eastern Sectional silver medalist’s scores drew boos from the audience who expected her clean program to place better.
“I kind of feel bad for the judges,” admitted Bulanhagui. “But having the crowd behind me was great!”
Bulanhagui, who finished 12th at last year’s championships, landed a triple Lutz-double toe combination, a triple flip, and a double Axel in her program, however, she only received a level 1 for her straightline step sequence.
“I was shooting for a level four,” confessed the 17-year-old. “I guess that I just didn’t get my edges right. I felt really good, though, and I just took everyone’s energy inside and used it for my program. I think it worked.”
Alissa Czisny (Detroit SC) made errors on each of her jump attempts, and looked visibly shaken as she left the ice. Though she earned high marks for her spectacular spins and elegant choreography, last year’s bronze medalist was unable to overcome her mistakes and could only score 50.58 points for her efforts.
“I didn’t quite trust my jumps enough,” said Czisny. “I rotated them, so I guess that’s a good thing.”
“Things like this happen,” continued the 20-year-old, “and obviously it wasn’t a total disaster. I think that I just have to forget about it, and focus on what my job is here.”
The ladies competition will heat up again on Saturday morning with the ladies who finished 11th-20th skating at 8:45, while the top 10 earned the privilege of skating later in the day and on the NBC broadcast. It will be an interesting ride as U.S. Figure Skating selects the team who will compete at the World Championships in March as three of the top seven are not age eligible to compete.