Yes, Ashley Wagner defended her title Saturday night — the first woman to win back-to-back U.S. nationals since 2005.
But the real story of the nail-biting conclusion of the ladies competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships was clearly about a different gold.
After a disappointing short program, the 17-year-old from Chicago entered the second half of the competition in ninth. But as soon as she took the ice, Gracie Gold was sending a message: Middle of the road? Not me.
Skating to music from the film “Life is Beautiful,” Gold began her program with a huge jump combination — triple lutz-triple toe loop — and then didn’t let up. The audience at the CenturyLink Center was on its feet before the music stopped. Gold was near tears, shaking her head in disbelief.
The judges believed it, too, awarding Gold the second-highest free skate score ever for a U.S. ladies skater. It was enough to secure the top spot as five more competitors came and went, including Agnes Zawadzki, who had been in second.
Then came Wagner.
The reigning queen of U.S. figure skating came out looking undeterred by the buzz Gold had left on the ice. And just as quickly, she was sprawling on the ice after a fumbled jump. And then a second fall.
“Going into it, I’d been thinking how I’ve been so great on it in practice,” Wagner said later. “And sometimes when you think too much, things go wrong.”
Though she regained her composure and finished the rest of her program without a major hitch, Wagner was clearly unhappy as she skated off the ice. She smiled, teeth gritted.
After the final skater, Mirai Nagasu, tumbled from third to a disappointing seventh, the results were clear: Wagner, Gold, Zawadzki.
The scores were close: Wagner with 188.84, Gold with 186.57 and Zawadzki with 179.63.
But neither the audience nor the competitors seemed content. Was the night a bigger win for Wagner or Gold?
Talking to reporters after the competition, Wagner barely cracked a smile. She was pleased, she said, but the moment belonged to Gold.
“It was not the type of win … not the performance I had imagined myself having,” Wagner said. For her part, the night’s star described the skate as a hard-fought battle.
After a short program she described as “horrifying,” Gold spent some time away from the CenturyLink Center, training at another rink.
When it came time for the big show, she thought about home. About the quiet of the rink. About how it was just another skate.
“I stopped focusing on what was around me — the crowd, the screaming, the other skaters, the pressure the expectations,” she said. “I let it all go.”
And now, she could be on her way to the world championships, which will be held in March in Canada. The U.S. will send two ladies skaters with an important mission: performing well enough to secure the maximum three spots for their country at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
Gold said she’d calculated that if she skated her best she could be in contention for a medal, but assumed it would be pewter at best.
Silver, she said, was a surprise.
“I just went out there and skated like I know how to skate,” she said.
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