It was an exciting day at the 2016 U.S. Championships, with record-breaking performances and dramatic upsets. As dismal as the short programs were earlier in the week, the free skating competitions were the salvation that American skating needed.
The ladies were the main attraction on Saturday, and they did not disappoint. The top seven landed a combined nine triple-triple combinations and jump sequences. In the end, Gracie Gold reigned supreme, winning her second title in front of an enthusiastic audience here in St. Paul.
Skating to “Firebird,” Gold’s performance was as close to perfect as we have seen from her. She opened with a textbook triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination, and that set the tone for the rest of the program. Gold landed a total of seven triple jumps, and celebrated with an audible “Yes!” after landing her final Salchow and earned level fours across the board for her other elements. She earned 147.96 points for her free skate and 210.46 points overall.
“The key was really that I knew that I didn’t need to change anything,” Gold later said. “I’ve skated that exact program at Toyota Center in practice, and I skated that program yesterday. I know every single step and the whole rhythm of the program. It’s like a necklace that is strung. I just know how it goes. It’s when things start to change that I have problems and it leaves me flummoxed. It’s so well rehearsed that messing up feels out of character. I do clean programs at home, so doing it here feels good that all of my hard work paid off.”
Leading after the short program, Polina Edmunds slipped to second place overall with perhaps the best silver medal winning performance at the U.S. Championships in recent history. The San Jose, Calif., native landed seven triple jumps, including a triple Lutz-triple toe combination and a smooth triple flip-single loop-triple Salchow sequence. Already a technically steady performer, Edmunds showed a newfound maturity in her interpretation of Scarlett O’Hara in her “Gone With the Wind” themed program. She earned 207.51 points in the competition — the fourth highest total in U.S. Championships history.
“Today went really great for me and I am really happy that I skated a clean long program,” Edmunds explained. “That was my goal — to skate two clean programs. I really think I showed a good champion mentality and I’m really happy to be on the podium.”
After placing fourth in the short program, Ashley Wagner came storming back in the free skate, pulling up to capture the bronze medal. Playing the role of underdog — a position in which she admits to being most comfortable, Wagner attacked each element without hesitation. She landed six triple jumps, including a triple flip-triple toe loop combination, but popped her final jump, an intended triple Lutz. “I was so excited that I think I just rushed it,” Wagner said of the Lutz. “That’s not really my mistake. My mistake is two-footing things. I think that it was it a little bit too fast, and that might (have been) the one thing that cost me the championship. I know that it is one of those freak things that if you look back on my history that I rarely do, and because of that, I am OK with it.”
The always-animated Wagner ended her program with an over the shoulder glare to the spot where she popped the jump, but was generally upbeat after the competition. “I was looking back at the Lutz knowing that it cost me about seven points,” she said with a laugh.” She scored 197.88 points.
Wagner later commented: “Today was the day of the triple Lutz that was my undoing, but it was a spectacular program from the start to the triple Lutz. Beyond that I’m really happy with how today went down. My main goal was to get onto the World Team and I’ve set myself up very well for that.”
Finishing in fourth place was the 2008 champion, Mirai Nagasu, who skated in the same boot that broke during her fifth place short program finish on Thursday evening. “To be completely honest, I think that more than anybody my coach was the most traumatized by this event because it was completely our of our control,” she said. “Because this was out of our control, I was completely OK with it. Of course there’s always room for improvement, but given the circumstances, I think I did pretty well.”
Nagasu was her bubbly self in her Gatsby program, which played perfectly to her strengths as a performer. As she navigated Catarina Lindgren’s playful choreography, Nagasu checked off triple jumps as if they were purely incidental. She landed six in all, and finished the competition with 188.84 points. “This feeling that I get after competing, whether (the skating) is bad or good, I like showing people all of the hard work that I have been doing,” she explained. “Whether it’s good or not, I still love that feeling, and with all of the support that I got tonight, I feel grateful.”
In third place after the short program, 17-year-old Tyler Pierce slipped to fifth overall with a strong performance to Saint- Saëns’ “Danse Macabre.” Though she landed six triple jumps including a triple Lutz-triple toe loop, Pierce could not keep pace with the program components of those who finished above her. She finished with a career best 188.50 points. “It was amazing,” Pierce said. “I have to admit that I was nervous for it, but I’m happy that I was able to overcome that and skate a good program. I think that because I had such a rough summer, and because I was having such a rough season with the coaching change and everything. My coach Tammy (Gambill) was able to help me with that, and I am happy with how everything turned out.”
Bradie Tennell, the 2015 junior champion, finished in sixth place, while last year’s bronze medalist Karen Chen moved up from 12th place after the short program to finish eighth overall.