Figure Skating Spotlight – U.S. Nationals Short Program Surprises

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To be the best figure skater in the nation requires passing approx. 20 skating tests, ranking in at least that many competitions, practicing for thousands of hours on and off the ice, spending oodles of money for ice time, custom designed skates and costumes and top notch coaching, it takes the right choice of music and choreography, an intense sense of discipline, and unlimited motivation before skaters make it even to the qualifying events before going on to Nationals. I never competed at Nationals, nor was it ever really a goal of mine. I didn’t have that kind of discipline, motivation, talent or athleticism and I wasn't willing to take that much time out of my daily life for one purpose. I did pass 16 tests as a child skater and another four as an Adult competitor in order to qualify and participate in the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships where I won a few medals, I’ve competed in over 20 competitions including internationally, and I worked hard for many memorable moments on the ice. When I watch competitions, I sometimes feel my muscles automatically contracting in anticipation of the jumps coming up, and I know what that look on their faces means when they lose concentration and what it will cost in their marks. Watching Nationals has been a little different for me this year - rather than being there or watching a delayed, cropped version of the event on TV, I was able to see the entire competition live on my laptop, thanks to the coverage. It felt somewhere between being there and watching on TV. I was able to see all the skaters warm-up, perform, and wait for their marks. I could actually hear the coaches giving feedback to the skaters after their programs while in the "Kiss & Cry" area. It was a whole new experience and I’m totally hooked. Now for the Senior Ladies Short Program report... if you plan to watch the video online or TV coverage, don't read past this point because I will tell you who dazzled, who fell, and who's in the lead. Last night, the Senior Ladies battled for top marks in the Short Program event (two minutes and forty seconds) in order to set themselves up for Saturday’s Free Skate (four minutes) where the top points add up to the title. Of the 20 competitors in the Senior Ladies event, Caroline Zhang was the first of the top contenders to skate. Zhang, the reigning Junior World Champion, showed the nerve to attempt a high point triple-triple combination, but she stepped out of the second jump, was tentative on her double axel and slow on her footwork, leaving room for the skaters to overtake her marks. Following Zhang, Beatrisa Liang, whose bodysuit would not have been legal in competition a few years back, popped her triple lutz (stopping the attempt at rotation mid-air), but her speed and presentation moved her into the lead. Kimmie Meissner, 2006 World Champion and 2007 U.S. champion, known for being the second U.S. lady to land a triple axel in major competition, skated in the second group. Meissner won Skate America in September but had a rocky performance at the Grand Prix Final, finishing sixth. With her title on the line and as the incoming favorite, Meissner began her program looking strong, but suffered an uncharacteristic fall on her triple flip – she just didn’t have the height to pull it off. However, due to the height on her other jumps, her speed, and the degree of difficulty in her other moves, she was able to pull into first. Becky Bereswill, the first skater to perform a clean (no errors) program, was put into sixth at that point in the event, prompting the crowd to boo. The new judging system still leaves people confused – why not reward a perfect program? The devil’s in the details. Her elements just weren’t as difficult. She’s in 14th after the Short Program. Alyssa Czissny, 2007 U.S. bronze medalist, known for amazing spins and artistry, skated with a cast on her wrist due to a broken thumb. She stepped-out of her triple lutz combination, two-footed her triple flip, and fell on her double axel. I give her credit just for showing-up with that cast and she still looked beautiful. Katrina Hacker, the second competitor to skate a clean program, had a gorgeous spiral and strong jumps, putting her into second behind Meissner and warming the crowd just enough for what was to come. Mirai Nagasu, who jumped into the top spot at the Junior level last year, skated to Gershwin’s "I Got Rhythm" in a bright pink dress with a big smile (here’s my Dick Button moment where I say she’s “my kind of skater”). Nagasu landed a gorgeous triple lutz, triple toe combination and at the end of the program, she reminded me a lot of Kristi Yamaguchi. She brought the house to their feet and she leaped nearly 13 points ahead of Kimmie Meissner. I’m no stats expert on this new system, but I don’t recall anyone recovering from that kind of point deficit in the Free Skate in order to win. It's possible, but highly unlikely. Rachel Flatt followed by skating to “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, another Gershwin favorite, landed a nice triple lutz, triple toe combination (these triple-triples are huge in the point department) and scored 62.91 pulling ahead of Meissner into second. Ashley Wagner, the last of the major contenders, performed a beautiful triple lutz, triple loop (more difficult than the triple lutz, triple toe), she had excellent speed in her jumps and spins and she moved into second with a score of 65.15. At this point, another competitor performed to "Tosca", causing me to blank out due to a visceral reaction from hearing that music used in competitions so many times over the past ten years. I think it should be banned for at least ten (like the unitards), along with "Carmen". The final skater in the event was a Minnesota local, Molly Oberstar, who skated well and took 11th place, ending the event on a high note. Final marks for the top ten: 1 – Mirai Nagasu – 70.23 2 – Ashley Wagner – 65.15 3 – Rachel Flatt – 62.91 4 – Kimmie Meissner – 57.58 5 – Katrina Hacker – 56.87 6 – Beatrisa Liang – 55.10 7 – Caroline Zhang – 53.49 8 – Melissa Bulanhagui – 52.77 9 – Alissa Czisny – 50.58 10 – Danielle Kahle – 50.46 This translates to a solid lead for Nagasu, a battle for silver between Wagner, Flatt and possibly Meissner, and due to the closeness of the points, none of the top ten can be counted out for the bronze and the pewter medals. What makes it more complicated is that the top three spots are usually placed on the World team – unless those medalists are ineligible due to age. Nagasu, Flatt and Zhang are all too young for Worlds. In the rare event that all three of them make the podium, that means the 4th-6th place finishers would be named to the team – good news for Meissner, even if she finishes fourth. However, one skater is missing this year – Emily Hughes, out from a hip injury. She should be recovered and training again in time for Worlds, so she could receive one of the slots for Worlds given past performance if she applies. In a sport where athletes peak between age 15 and 19 and the premiere event (the Winter Olympics) comes every 4 years, it's nearly impossible to time it right, but most of these skaters are looking to 2010 for the world stage, not 2008, so it usually doesn’t faze them if they can’t go this year. The National title is an achievement in itself and it looks likely we’ll have a new champion. If you’re watching the Pairs event, look for McLaughlin & Brubaker. Fresh from the junior ranks (they won Junior Nationals and Junior Worlds), they are in first place after the Senior Pairs Short Program. They're also not eligible for Worlds since McLaughlin is too young. Former U.S. champions Inoue & Baldwin are in second, just 1.3 points behind the leaders (a miniscule difference), followed by Castile & Okolski in third and Evora & Ladwig in fourth. Those two pairs are 1.85 points apart although it's unlikely either could recover enough for the gold medal. In Dance, Belbin & Agosto are solidly in the lead after the Compulsory and Original Dance events. The Free Dance will take place Saturday evening. The Senior Men skate Friday night in the Short Program and Saturday afternoon in their Free Skate. BlogHer's month long Good Health-a-thon has one week remaining, and I think it's fitting that this is also the conclusion of National Skating Month, with the climax over the next few days as the U.S. Figure Skating Championships final events commence. Figure skating is supposedly the most popular women's spectator sport, so ladies, please join me in continuing to watch the coverage this weekend of some incredibly inspiring young athletes. Sarah Granger, Guest Contributing Editor, took ten years to land a consistent axel. Find her at Sairy, SFBayStyle & the


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