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Skating Notes: Contenders offer first impressions

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Skating Notes: Contenders offer first impressions

Figure skater Christina Gao practices at the CenturyLink Center Omaha on Tuesday.

The senior ladies are finally in the house. (That's when you really know it's Nationals.) And a lot of them are really gunning for the chance to be America's next Ice Queen.

That much was evident from the high quality of skating seen all day Tuesday in their initial practice sessions on Omaha ice — first during the morning at the main CenturyLink Arena rink and then in the afternoon at the adjacent Convention Center practice rink.

Some early impressions:

>> Gracie Gold is the real deal. Since she breezed to the junior ladies' title last year, the buzz has been building about her chances to make the 2014 Olympic team. She did everything right in both practices, including an array of dazzling spins and a perfect run-through of her triple-jump-packed long program.

>> Mirai Nagasu is on a major comeback. After struggling to a seventh-place collapse last year, she looks much more like the skater who was the 16-year-old darling of the 2010 Olympics (finishing fourth). She did solid triple-triples in both practice sessions, including in the run-through of her short program. Better yet, her overall speed is much improved.

>> Ashley Wagner means business. The surprise winner of last year's Nationals conducted both practice sessions with the calm, confident air of a champion. She did everything cleanly, crisply and carefully.

>> Courtney Hicks could pull a huge surprise. The 2011 junior champion is in her first Nationals as a senior after an injury kept her out of competition last year. Her practices included a full arsenal of ooh-inducing triple jumps, with the kind of height and flow that judges love to see.

Of course, it's still early. There's still plenty of practice left before competition starts Thursday night with the short programs.

Zhou wins juniors

Tuesday's action also included the finals of the junior men's event, with 12-year-old Vincent Zhou pulling up from second to first — and earning a standing ovation — with a challenging and charming program set to music from "Casablanca." As Zhou collected the obligatory stuffed animals that are thrown on the ice after performances, a member of the audience instead tossed him a top hat to go with his tux. Finishing second was Shotaro Omori, who had led after the short program; third was Nathan Chen, who won this event last year.

Musical mash-up

Music segue of the day: A few hours spent watching skating practices can leave you humming along to everything from Mozart to movie themes. But rarely are the changes in style more jarring than they were Tuesday, when one skater's "Ave Maria" was followed directly by another's "Stairway to Heaven."

Can't believe it's free

>> All day Wednesday, the Convention Center rink (no ticket needed) will be filled with the elite skaters who are competing not just for national titles but also for spots on the world team. It will be the first appearance on Omaha ice for the senior men (12:25 to 3:20 p.m.) and senior ice dancers (3:35 to 5:50 p.m.). Also practicing will be the senior pairs (8:40 to 10:55 a.m.) and those senior ladies (5:50 to 9 p.m.).

>> Wednesday also is opening day for the Fanfest area, which is being billed as the largest-ever at Nationals. It's adjacent to the Convention Center rink and all activities are free (vendors also are setting up booths with skating-related products). Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., daily through Sunday.

Don't miss it

>> Wednesday's top competition at the main CenturyLink Arena rink (ticket required) will be the junior ladies' finals at 8:45 p.m. The random draw for the skating order produced some drama, with the leader (Polina Edmunds) having to perform first in the final group of six skaters. That position offers a strategic advantage to the challengers, who can use her score to decide if they should go all-out or skate more conservatively. The final group also includes second-place Mariah Bell (skating third) and third-place Karen Chen (skating last). Only four points separate the top three.

>> Earlier in the day, finals will be held for the junior ice dancers (noon) and junior pairs (2 p.m.).

>> For autograph-hunters, all the medalists in the junior ice dance and junior men's events will be at a signing table (near Section 125 in the arena concourse) from 8:15 to 8:45 p.m.

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