They're a little jet-lagged and wary of the frigid weather outside, but skating's biggest stars are making themselves at home at the CenturyLink Center.
Tuesday, as junior-level skaters took the ice on the third day of competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, senior-level skaters began turning up at the practice rink. A small crowd of coaches, family members and fans got a first look at top ladies skaters, including defending champion Ashley Wagner, 2010 Olympian — and former national champion — Mirai Nagasu and senior newcomer Gracie Gold.
With two days left before they'll perform their short programs, there's no time to make major adjustments.
Standing alongside the rink, dressed in winter coats and ready with tissues and water bottles for their skaters, coaches consulted about the small things: Listen to how your skates sound when you make that turn. Raise your arms higher.
Leaning over the side of the rink, wearing sunglasses and a faded USA jacket, coach John Nicks consulted with his star student, Wagner. She's the last in a series of impressive clients for the 83-year-old British coach: He has worked with everybody from Peggy Fleming to 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen. He was in Omaha for the 1967 Championships, coaching pairs skaters JoJo Starbuck and Kenneth Shelley.
Nicks was nervous about Wagner's skating. She had lost time recovering from a nasty fall at a competition in Russia late last year. Then last week, she came down with food poisoning and had to take it easy for a few days. Her flight into Omaha was delayed because of mechanical problems, which meant she was running on only a few hours of sleep.
But as she landed jump after jump in the practice rink, he breathed a little easier.
“She skated great, so I'm encouraged by that,” he said.
For her part, Wagner was glad to please her coach.
“It's always great to hear a man with thousands of years of experience telling you you're looking good,” she said, laughing. “That makes me very confident.”
Mirai Nagusu — the 2008 U.S. champion and a competitor at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, where she finished fourth — was on the ice along with Wagner. Once she was finished skating, she pulled on a U.S. Olympic Team parka and bright pink sneakers and tried not to cough as she talked to reporters.
The flu virus that's hit just about every workplace, it seems, hasn't missed figure skaters.
“I haven't been feeling my greatest,” she said, “but I'm recovering quite well for the event.”
Nagasu, hoping to bounce back from a disappointing seventh-place finish at last year's nationals, said she's been working hard to improve her fitness and all the elements in her programs.
“I just really love to skate, and I've been trying to get back to that same feeling of loving skating and not thinking about anything else,” she said.
Meanwhile, as senior pairs skaters begin their official practices — competition in that category also starts Thursday — one athlete is paying particularly close attention to the training schedule.
Kiri Baga, a 17-year-old skater from Bloomington, Minn., will compete Thursday afternoon in pairs with partner Taylor Toth. Then a few hours later, she'll switch costumes and take the ice again, this time as a singles skater.
She's the only senior-level competitor pulling double duty and one of only two skaters in the entire competition to enter two events. (The other was Sarah Feng, a novice skater who competed earlier this week in the ladies and ice dance divisions.)
It's a challenge that few skaters take on, and it's considered nearly impossible to be a top contender in two categories at once.
But Baga, who last year placed 10th at nationals and started with pairs nine months ago, said she just wants the chance to try her hand at two disciplines she enjoys.
Because she spends so much time on the ice already, she's not worried about her body being more sore after two competition skates in one day. It's the switching gears that's the hard part, she said.
“I'm going to have to let myself go from one program, and then go on to the next,” she said. “So mentally, I think I'm going to be drained after I'm done.”
“But I'm ready for it,” she said.
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