Karen Chen holds off Ashley Wagner for shocking U.S. title
KANSAS CITY -- Karen Chen was as surprised as anyone that she won the U.S. title.
“I’m just in complete shock,” said Chen, who was eighth last year. “It was hard for me to believe that this day would come.”
Chen, 17, overcame nearly two seasons’ worth of struggles to win her first national championship Saturday night. She posted the highest short-program and free-skate scores and topped a field that included three Olympians.
Most notably Ashley Wagner, who finished second, 2.44 points behind. Wagner, a three-time U.S. champion and 2016 World silver medalist, just missed becoming the oldest women’s gold medalist in 90 years.
Wagner didn’t seem to mind her first U.S. silver medal, though, because she’s surely going to be on the three-woman world championships team named Sunday.
“This is perfect for me,” said Wagner, who came into the week as the clear favorite. “It gives me the opportunity to go in [to the world championships] with my head down and keep on working. I know where I lost my points. ... I’m not planning on peaking here.”
Mariah Bell, who shares a coach with Wagner, jumped from sixth after the short program to finish third and likely lock down the last worlds spot. Full results are here.
Gracie Gold, who finished fourth at the Olympics and the last two worlds, tumbled to sixth place and is likely to miss worlds for the first time in her five-year senior career. Gold reflected on her disastrous season afterward.
It was also a heartbreaking day for 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu, who fell from second after the short program to finish fourth, 3.02 behind Bell.
Nagasu had four of her jumps called under-rotated in her free skate. Nagasu was heartbreakingly left off the 2014 Olympic team. It looks like she finished one spot shy of making the worlds team, which is chosen by a committee.
“I am speechless,” Nagasu said. “I knew I was ready, and I just didn’t deliver tonight. ... This isn’t the way I wanted it to go, but I think that people are defined by how they react to things.”
Like Chen. The Fremont, Calif., native burst onto the scene two years ago, finishing third at nationals behind Wagner and Gold at age 15.
She was too young to be selected for the 2015 Worlds team. Little had been heard about Chen since (though plenty has been from U.S. men’s leader Nathan Chen, also 17 years old but unrelated).
She dropped to eighth at the 2016 U.S. Championships and came into Kansas City as the seventh-ranked U.S. woman this season. Struggling to find comfortable boots — a common skater problem — has plagued her. She went through 14 pairs in a four-month stretch.
But Chen felt plenty comfortable Thursday, performing a rare clean program for the lead.
“I skated the short of my dreams,” Chen said. “I wanted to follow it up with a close to perfect long.”
It was pretty darn close. Chen landed all of her jumps clean, including seven triples.
“This moment was something that I really dreamed about,” Chen said. “It was far from reality.”
Wagner will likely be leading a world championships team with two rookies in Chen and Bell.
It’s the most pressure-packed worlds of the four-year cycle, because the skaters’ placements determine how many Olympic spots each nation receives.
To ensure the maximum three spots at the Olympics, the top two U.S. finishers at worlds must add up to no more than 13 (sixth and seventh, for example).
Japan and Russia will send three skaters each with the talent to finish in the top five. Canadian champion Kaetlyn Osmond is also a medal threat. Wagner, sitting next to Chen and Bell, stressed that they should “tune out the noise” going into the biggest competition of their careers.
“It is so easy to be devoured by you guys because you all have eaten me alive before,” Wagner, who made her worlds debut in 2008, told the media. “Karen just has to deliver what she did here, Mariah has to do the same thing, and we’ll be set.”
Earlier Saturday, Maia and Alex Shibutani were beaten in the free dance but held on to repeat as U.S. champions. Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier were the best of a flawed pairs field to earn their first U.S. title.
The U.S. Championships conclude Sunday with the men’s free skate (4 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app). Nathan Chen, 17, is in position to become the youngest U.S. men’s champion in 51 years.
Check out NBCsports.com/USFIGS for all-access coverage all weekend.