Ashley Wagner, fickle field chase Olympics at figure skating nationals
Next week, the U.S. women’s singles champion will be determined in San Jose.
The Olympic team of three women will also be decided by a committee behind the proverbial closed doors after the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Neither competition is easily predictable.
The marquee event of the Winter Olympics has also been the most chaotic for U.S. figure skating over the last year.
It starts with Ashley Wagner, as it usually does.
The three-time U.S. champion and 2016 World silver medalist struggled last season, her least successful campaign in six years.
This year hasn’t been better. At 26, she is the oldest woman in next week’s field by two years.
“I have not had a good season at all,” said Wagner, who would finish fourth next week if every skater repeats her best score from fall events. “It’s frustrating as an athlete to train as hard as I do every day and then go out to competition and kind of freeze.”
Wagner’s longtime rival, Gracie Gold, is sitting out this season to treat depression, anxiety and an eating disorder.
Three others outscored Wagner this fall -- upstart Bradie Tennell, 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu and training partner Mariah Bell.
A fourth, Karen Chen, was the top American at the two biggest events last season -- nationals and worlds.
So, who is the favorite next week?
“That’s not an answer you’re going to get from me,” Nagasu said. “It’s not important to me.”
What is important is finishing in the top three, which in most cases would be enough to get on the Olympic team.
But the feeling is that not everything will be resolved after the free skate one week from Friday. That night could be a restless one for some skaters, before the team is expected to be announced the next morning.
Especially after what happened in 2014 -- fourth-place Wagner getting on the Olympic team over third-place Nagasu -- and the committee’s discretionary criteria.
Six skaters to watch next week:
Three-time U.S. champion
2016 World silver medalist
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 4th
The only woman in the field with a world medal said she feels “dramatically better” after withdrawing during her Skate America free skate due to an ankle infection on Nov. 26.
She received an antibiotics injection and was out of skates for a week, which was followed by an announcement that she changed her free skate program from “Moulin Rouge!” to “La La Land.”
Wagner’s biggest challenge is a familiar one for U.S. women -- under-rotated jumps. Judges docked her on seven of her 13 jumping passes in the fall Grand Prix season, but panels at U.S. Championships are generally more forgiving.
Wagner would be the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles skater since 1928.
2017 U.S. champion
4th at 2017 World Championships
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 6th
Chen has this going for her: The selection committee is tasked to weigh the 2018 U.S. Championships results equally with the 2017 World Championships. Chen was fourth at worlds, three spots ahead of Wagner and eight spots ahead of Bell.
An argument can be made that if the Olympic team is chosen today, the 18-year-old Kristi Yamaguchi protegé should be the No. 1 selection.
But Chen hasn’t looked like an Olympian this season. She was seventh and eighth at her two Grand Prix starts and sixth out of six skaters at the free-skate only Japan Open, struggling with jumps and voicing nervousness of the added pressure with the Olympics ahead.
Her season’s best score is a whopping 21.3 points behind the U.S. leader Tennell but only 5.76 shy of the third-best American woman from the fall. It might not require much of an improvement to land on the podium in San Jose.
4th at 2010 Olympics
2008 U.S. champion
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 2nd
The sentimental favorite next week after being bumped off the three-woman 2014 Olympic team despite finishing third at those nationals.
Nagasu was once the phenom of U.S. women’s skating.
She won her only national title in 2008 at age 14. She was fourth at the 2010 Olympics and topped the 2010 World Championships short program over the likes of Yuna Kim and Mao Asada (Nagasu disintegrated in the free skate and was seventh).
She faded after that. Nagasu boasts longevity -- top seven at nine of the last 10 nationals -- but competed at one world championships since 2010 (as an injury replacement).
This season brought a spark in the form of a triple Axel. She landed the toughest jump in senior women’s skating twice in September, becoming the second American to do so in international competition after Tonya Harding. (Nagasu’s landings were imperfect, however, two-footed).
Given what happened four years ago, does Nagasu have to win to force the committee to put her on the team?
“I don’t necessarily feel like I have to win,” she said, adding that she hasn’t decided if this will be her last nationals. “I want to be top two, because that [Olympics] team event is something I really want to be part of.”
Nagasu spoke of fearlessness and not shying from risk.
“It’s time to go in for the kill,” she said.
2017 Skate America bronze medalist
2015 U.S. junior champion
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 1st
Ninth at last season’s nationals. Best U.S. woman this season. The 19-year-old from suburban Chicago is the face of unpredictability in U.S. women’s skating.
Tennell went into Skate America on Thanksgiving weekend as the highest-scoring American this season. She recorded more personal bests there -- at her first Grand Prix -- for the bronze medal. Her total was the highest by a U.S. woman in international competition since Wagner’s silver at the March 2016 Worlds.
“I did my job,” Tennell said then. “I think I have [put myself in the Olympic conversation].”
Tennell received positive grades of execution on all 15 of her jumps at Skate America with zero under-rotations. That stood out among the top U.S. women who struggled in the air this year.
She went off the radar after winning the 2015 U.S. junior title. Tennell was reportedly slowed by stress fractures in her lower back later in 2015 and in 2016, which may explain the ninth at last season’s nationals.
2017 U.S. bronze medalist
12th at 2017 World Championships
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 3rd
Joined Wagner’s training group in August 2016. Broke out by taking silver behind Wagner at last season’s Skate America and bronze behind Chen and Wagner at nationals.
The 21-year-old said she struggled with nerves at last season’s worlds -- where she was 12th in her debut. She placed sixth and ninth in her two Grand Prix starts this fall (jumping problems), but her best score from this season is bettered only by Tennell and Nagasu.
2014, 2016 U.S. silver medalist
9th at 2014 Olympics
2017-18 U.S. ranking: 13th
The youngest U.S. competitor across all sports in Sochi hasn’t been the same since the 2016 nationals. She went 20 months between competitions, missing the entire 2016-17 season due to a bone bruise in her right foot.
The Santa Clara University student was 10th and 13th in her two international events this fall, scoring 30 and 40 points shy of her personal best.
Edmunds was the pleasant surprise of the 2014 U.S. Championships and will need an even bigger shock to make a second Olympic team.
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