Before the women began competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Ashley Wagner explained just what she and her rivals were likely to be feeling when they took the ice for the short program at Xcel Energy Center.
“The type of pressure you feel here,” she said, “there’s nothing like it.”
Thursday night, after falling on the second jump of her opening combination, the three-time champ called the event “a spectacular beast.” Her main competitor, Gracie Gold, botched her opening jump and joked that she was simply building suspense for her free skate. But Polina Edmunds — a skater lost in the hype over the Gold-Wagner showdown — brushed aside the pressure that felled so many, emerging as the surprise leader.
Edmunds’ steely performance to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” earned her 70.19 points, giving her nearly an eight-point lead over Gold’s 62.50. Wagner’s tumble knocked her all the way to fourth place with 62.41, a whisker behind the 62.45 scored by third-place Tyler Pierce.
Edmunds, a 2014 Olympian who was the runner-up to Gold at that year’s nationals, nailed her opening triple lutz-triple toe combination and sailed through the rest of her program, showing no trace of any anxiety.
“I was trying to stay as calm and relaxed as I could at a national championships,” Edmunds said. “I wanted to feel comfortable on the ice and show the judges how beautiful this program really is.
“I have confidence in myself, and a belief when I step on the ice, I’m able to do what I do in practice. I think I’ve been at this long enough to be comfortable. I’m very happy I showed what I’m capable of.”
Wagner said she was not upset with her skate. She opened with a triple flip but crashed on the triple toe that went with it, but she gritted her teeth and finished up her sassy, jazzy program. She said she still has a chance to defend her title, confident that a solid free skate Saturday can make up the deficit.
“Our top two international skaters falter under the pressure. It’s immense,” Wagner said, referring to herself and Gold. “But unlike in nationals past, I don’t think I dug myself that deep of a hole.
“I could have let the program go after [the fall]. It is very scary to make a mistake on your first jump, but I held it together. It was a solid program.”
Gold said she had no explanation for her opening mistake, when she singled a planned triple lutz and omitted the triple toe that was supposed to follow. She improvised, adding a double toeloop to a triple flip later in the program, but the damage was done.
“I just wasn’t present in the moment,” Gold said. “I was just flummoxed. It’s really, really unfortunate.”
Mirai Nagasu, who won her only U.S. title at Xcel in 2008, tore her skate boot halfway through her program but fought through to finish fifth.
Nagasu’s lyrical performance to “Demons” by Imagine Dragons captivated the crowd, just as she did in 2008 as a 14-year-old. Her career has been wildly inconsistent since her triumph in St. Paul, but she remains a determined and plucky skater.
Other than turning a planned triple-triple into a triple-double, she completed all of her elements despite skating with a torn right boot. The seam ripped on the landing of a jump, and while it bothered her, she soaked up the support of the crowd and soldiered on. The skates she wore Thursday were her backup pair, and technicians quickly began working to repair the boot.
“I kept going, because I’m so well-trained, and I know to keep going in any situation,” said Nagasu, whose 2008 title made her the second-youngest U.S. women’s champion in history. “I feel like that’s one of my best qualities. Not quite the performance I was looking for, but I think I’m so well-trained that it still came off as a good performance.”
The women’s, men’s, pairs and ice dance champions will earn places on the team that will represent the U.S. at the world championships in Boston two months from now. The American team will include three women, three men, two pairs and three dance teams, with the other members to be chosen at the conclusion of the championships.