The stage was set for Ashley Wagner to test her mettle at the 2013 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships The 21-year-old arrived in Omaha battle-worn—first from the injury that she suffered as she placed second at the Grand Prix Final in Sochi in December, and more recently, as she was putting the finishing touches on her preparations for nationals. The event-favorite was struck with food poisoning.
Despite the hurdles, the reigning champion heads into the free skate in first place after a steady performance in the short program.
“Tonight I felt really solid. I did exactly what I came here and planned on doing,” she said after the competition. “I didn’t have a triple-triple combination, but that was planned. I went out and I skated solid and I owned every single jump, spin, and element in that program. I’m very pleased with this performance and now I just need to keep my head on straight going into the free skate.”
Wagner immediately set the tone for her routine to The Red Violin program, drawing the audience in with a tantalizing glance of the eyes. Her jumps—a triple Lutz-double toe loop combination, a double Axel, and solo triple loop—were solid. Her performance was captivating. Little did anyone know, that Wagner was struggling with her nerves before she began her program.
“Going out onto the ice I had all of these bad omens that I kept seeing,” she said with a laugh. “I’m superstitious, crazy superstitious. I have this one lucky thing and that didn’t happen, and then a song came on that I hated and I wasn’t feeling so great. Then the music started and it was really quiet. I was cautious because in my head I was like ‘oh my God, nationals is falling apart, what am I doing?’ Then I realized that I had a triple flip to do, and I couldn’t really afford to think like that. I kept my head on straight and finished the program strong.”
The southern California-based Wagner elaborated on the omens.
“It started when I was six years-old. I always find a sparkle on the ground, but I can’t go looking for a sparkle, I just have to find the sparkle. Tonight I didn’t happen to come across one,” she said with frustration. “I also always find my mom in the stands. There weren’t that many people there tonight, so I don’t know why I couldn’t find her, but I couldn’t find her to save my life. I had an OAR phase, but I grew out of it, so now I hate that song. All of that was happening and I was getting more and more nervous as time went on.”
None of that mattered, however. Wagner kept her composure, and heads into the free skate with 67.57 points—her personal best score for a short program at the U.S. Championships.
Nipping on Wagner’s blades is last year’s bronze medalist, Agnes Zawadzki, who finished with 65.31 points. Her Sex and the City 2 program was sleek and sexy, and lends itself to the Chicago native’s long, lean physique.
“I’ve been working on my confidence a lot this season and feel like it’s building up,” she said. “I’m really happy with where it is now, and I think that for the long it makes me hungry for the Axels. I’m ready and I’m really excited.”
Zawadzki skated immediately after the leader, and was the last to compete her short program. The 18-year-old opened with a strong triple Lutz, and nailed a triple toe loop-triple toe loop combination that seemed to travel across the width of the rink. The lone mistake came on the easiest of the jumps—a fall on her double Axel.
“I’m really happy with the way I started off my program,” she said. “I did a solid toe-toe and Lutz, silly mistake on the Axel, but I’m doing well. I’m very excited to skate the long and just ready to go out there.”
Mirai Nagasu skated second in the competition, and held the lead until the final two skaters of the night—Wagner and Zawadzki. The 19-year-old sits in third place with 64.39 points.
“I’ve been taking it one day at a time, and I’ve noticed that a lot of obstacles come my way. Like, I’ve had the flu, and it’s really dry here, so I’ve been getting bloody noses,” Nagasu said with her usual flair. “But I’ve been taking my training really seriously and working with my coaches, and because they believed in me, I believed in them. And they’re like, ‘you can do it today, just be fierce and go attack out there.’ So I took one element at a time and just had fun with it.”
The 2008 champion seems to have gotten some of her mojo back—she skated a clean program to Benny Goodman’s Downhill Special that included a triple toe loop-triple toe loop combination as well as a solid triple loop.
“As a team we decided that for this year we weren’t going to think about points,” she explained. “This week I’m just going to improve on my competition from NHK and I think that’s going to be pretty tough to do because I skated pretty well there. But I’ve been training hard. Hopefully I will be able to meet my own goals this week.”
The surprise of the evening was 17-year-old Courtney Hicks, who finished in fourth place in her senior debut. The 2011 junior champion missed the competition last season due to injury, and came back with a vengeance.
“I pulled out my patellar growth plate and I fractured the tibia right below it, so I was out for a few months,” she explained. “I think it was kind of good to have because I kind of needed a break. I had been training so hard… I had just being going and going. Even though it was a setback, I think it has ultimately helped me in the long run because my body was able to rest and recover, and now I am back with even more strength than before.”
Skating to Korobushka, Hicks nearly got full credit for her triple flip-triple toe combination, and scored a whopping 7.50 points for her triple Lutz. Her total of 59.72 points was a little more than a point less than her personal best.
“It was a lot of fun to perform my short program. I actually recently kind of re-choreographed it a little bit,” she said. “I think it is a lot more expressive and a lot more fun now. It was nice to be able to go and skate clean so that I could enjoy the program as much as possible.”
Harvard freshman Christina Gao, 18, found herself in a familiar position—fifth place, where she has finished in the last three seasons. A fall on her flying sit spin kept her from placing higher.
“That was a really silly mistake. I’m still kicking myself for it,” she said after the program.
Gao was rock solid on her jumps—a triple toe loop-triple toe loop combination, a triple loop, and the requisite double Axel, and she interpreted her Close Without Touching program with maturity and a fastidious attention to detail.
“From the beginning, I was telling myself to do it like I did in practice,” Gao explained. “[It was] kind of what I’ve always been doing in practice—except for that spin, but I’m glad I did my triple-triple because I messed that up at the [Grand Prix] Final and in Paris.”
Yasmin Siraj, 16, skated the program of her life, and sits in sixth place with 57.88 points. The Brookline, Mass., native landed a triple toe loop-triple toe loop combination in her Daphnis and Chloe program, and skated with maturity far beyond her years.
Gracie Gold, last year’s junior champion and a pre-event favorite, performed poorly, and finds herself seemingly out of contention in ninth place with 54.08 points. The 17-year-old fell on her opening triple flip-triple toe loop combination, and singled her Axel.
“I am disappointed in myself and how I skated today,” she said. “It was not a very good performance, but I will just have to pick myself up and try again on Saturday.”