The 2011 U.S. Figure Skating Championships descended upon Greensboro, N.C., just a few days shy of the 51st anniversary of the infamous Woolworth sit-ins that occurred just a few miles from the skating venue.
It was a week of surprise performances with dreams and expectations fulfilled for some, and hopes dashed for others.
REDEMPTION FOR CZISNY
After the ladies short program, three former U.S. champions sat atop the leader board, essentially tied. With little more than a point separating Mirai Nagasu, Alissa Czisny, and defending champion Rachael Flatt, the free skate would prove to be a test of each ladies’ competitive nerve.
When the dust settled, Czisny had captured her second title with a score of 191.24 points. She is the first woman to win multiple titles at nationals since Michelle Kwan, who claimed a total of nine during her outstanding career.
Coming off the best fall season of her lengthy career, Czisny was finally able to back up her elegant skating with the fight of a champion. The Bowling Green State University graduate did not miss a jump in the entire competition.
“Even when nobody believed in me, my coaches did,” Czisny said of Yuka Sato and Jason Dungjen. “Sometimes I didn’t even believe that I could do it, but they stuck by me. I will never forget them for that.”
Czisny’s free skate to music by George Winston has proven to be the perfect vehicle for her. As she completed her final element, her eyes welled up with tears of relief and joy.
“I had a lot of fun out there. I went out and focused on what I needed to do to make it happen,” Czisny said. “Winning was just the icing on the cake.”
Stanford-bound Flatt, attired in a vibrant red dress for her free skate, captured the silver medal with 183.38 points following her performance to “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.”
Known in the past for her consistency, the plucky 18-year-old had been struggling to find her groove all season. In Greensboro she looked more like her old self and fought for everything in her programs.
“I did struggle out there, and I was just glad that I got through it,” Flatt admitted. “It was just a little frustrating not getting the best landings on all of my jumps, but I have a few more competitions left this season to chase that perfect performance.”
Nagasu, 17, faded in her “Memoirs of a Geisha” free program, making errors on three jumps and missing a spin altogether. The perpetually undertrained Nagasu held on for bronze with 177.26 points, fending off a charge by upstart Agnes Zawadzki, who finished in an impressive fourth place in her senior debut.
“I can’t believe I missed a spin,” a frustrated Nagasu said. “A spin! I really wanted to go to the World Championships because they are in Japan where the rest of my family lives. I really wanted to see them.”
NEVER SAY NEVER
It was the first national championships in a decade without the names Lysacek and Weir, so the men’s field was wide open for an up-and-coming skater to make a name for himself.
But in the end it was the seasoned veteran Ryan Bradley, 27, who charmed his way to the title.
In his 11th appearance at the event, Bradley nailed the only quadruple toe-triple toe combination of the competition in his tongue-in-cheek short program performance to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
He held a two-point lead over defending champion Jeremy Abbott heading into the free skate but he was far from perfect in the long program, making errors on both quad attempts.
Bradley managed to salvage the program with seven hard-fought triple jumps, and his combined score of 231.90
was enough to propel him onto the top of the podium for the first time.
“I always said that if I didn’t think I could win here I would just stay home,” he said.
Bradley was forced to skip the first half of the season following surgery to repair a broken bone in his foot. When he decided to return to competition, and his long-time coach Tom Zakrajsek was unable to take him on, Bradley chose to work with his sister Becky Bradley.
“It was horrible timing on my part. Tom was traveling for six weeks on the Grand Prix when I decided to skate again,” Bradley recalled. “So I asked my sister Becky to be with me at the boards so that I could look back to someone who would love me no matter what.”
Richard Dornbush, a 19-year-old relative unknown from southern California, won the silver medal after placing seventh in the short program. The reigning Junior Grand Prix Final champion landed eight triple jumps in his mysterious Sherlock Holmes free skate, earning the highest score of the afternoon.
“It wasn’t until my last footwork that I really started to think about what I had done,” said Dornbush, who earned 225.56 points. “After my skate, I sat in the lounge watching one skater after another’s name go below mine in the standings. It was really exciting. I am so surprised to have won the silver medal.”
After missing nationals last season due to injury, Ross Miner, the 2009 Junior champion, was impressive at his senior debut.
Miner collected 224.35 points and captured the bronze medal in what he described as the best performance of his career. “I couldn’t believe how well I skated. It is surreal,” he admitted.
Abbott struggled in his free program, falling on an under-rotated triple Lutz, and finished in fourth. Brandon Mroz, third after the short program, skated an uninspired free program and slipped to seventh.
Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin were a pairs team on a mission in Greensboro. The duo followed up a spectacular tango short program with a moving free skating performance to “Ave Maria,” a dedication to Coughlin’s mother who passed away last year.
Yankowskas and Coughlin captured gold with a personal best score of 188.45. “That was the best I have ever felt in my whole life,” Coughlin said. “If my mom were here, she would say, ‘Of course it was the one I missed.’
“I didn’t really want to do this program because I wasn’t sure that I would be able to handle the emotion of it on a daily basis but I am so glad that we did. It was the best thing I could have done for myself.”
Being a national champion is a responsibility Yankowskas takes seriously. “To be a champion you have to be a good role model for those who look up to you,” she said. “To win the gold medal is the biggest reward anyone could ask for and I am thrilled and honored that our hard work and dedication paid off.”
Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig earned the silver medal for the second year in succession with 185.22. “I was probably less nervous today than I have ever been before,” Evora admitted after the free skate.
Defending champions Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett took themselves out of the competition with a fall in the short program but fought back in the free. They finished third with a score of 175.49.
Rockne Brubaker and his new partner, Mary Beth Marley, skated into fourth.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White showed up in Greensboro as the overwhelming favorites, and they did not disappoint.
Earning level fours and nearly perfect component scores in the short dance, the 2011 Grand Prix Final Champions took a six-point lead heading into the free.
“There is still much to work on,” White admitted. “Little things here and there that might not be visible on their own, but when added up, make a difference.”
Davis and White tackled an exhausting tango in the free dance, which was also rewarded with near-perfect component scores. The duo claimed their third consecutive title with 185.48.
“Improving on our performances is what we always strive for,” Davis said. “We definitely did that here, and winning a third national title is just as exciting as the first time.”
Last year’s junior champions Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani have transformed themselves into bona fide senior competitors. The brother and sister team captured the silver with 173.18 points.
“We worked really hard to shed the junior label,” Alex explained. “Skating well was our number one priority, and we knew that if we were able to do that, everything else would fall into place.”
Teammates Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein danced into third with 154.62, and Madison Hubbell and Keiffer Hubbell landed in fourth.
All four teams are coached by Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva.
Originally published in April 2011