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Favorites Falter, Polina Edmunds Wins Ladies Short Program

 by Karen Frank



(21 January 2016)  The only thing that can be counted on in the U. S. Nationals Senior Ladies competition is chaos. The 2016 event was true to form, with expected contenders faltering on at least one jump element, inconsistent competitors having some of the strongest events of their career, and, unfortunately, equipment failure. The first two twists could be reversed in Saturday’s free skate – the later, might spell disaster for Mirai Nagasu, whose boot split during her short program. Her team is hoping to find a solution, but it might involve either her having to skate in a brand new boot, or…duct tape.

In 2008, Nagasu won the National Championship in St. Paul. Returning to the city eight years later, after an up and down career, Nagasu was a crowd favorite, especially after she skated an apparently clean (she received an edge call on her triple flip, and doubled a planned triple toe) short program to a cover of Imagine Dragons’ Demons. Her heartfelt performance earned her a standing ovation. Currently in fifth place, if Nagasu’s boot issues are solved, she’s within three points of a Silver medal.

The Gold Medal, however, is apparently a long shot, though, as Polina Edmunds has almost an eight point lead over the rest of the field. Returning to the form she had when winning the 2014 Silver Medal, Edmunds displayed that floating quality that characterizes her best skates. When Edmonds is “on,” like she was for the short program, and when she won the Four Continents Championship last season, Edmunds brings the audience to their feet. Her Rudy Galindo choreographed program to Moonlight Sonata suited her perfectly. All of her jump elements (triple Lutz-triple toe, triple flip, and double Axel) were clean, but her performance was more than just the elements. During her footwork sequence, she appeared to be flying across the ice… and under the radar. Prior to the short program, the story was all about the upcoming battle between Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner.

Edmunds was fine coming in to the competition with little attention. “There’s always pre-competition hype and buzz, but I don’t really pay attention to it. Of course, I’ve never had the chance to be in this position before, but I’m really excited and happy that I’m finally here. It comes down to who skates the best and I’m glad that what I put down today was my best and that it was rewarded.”

After popping her opening triple Lutz into a single, Gold has a narrow lead over Tyler Pierce and Wagner. The three skaters are within .09 of each other. Following her first mistake, Gold refocused and ticked through the rest of her elements, making sure to tack on a double toe loop after her triple flip. Though she was glad she was able to pick herself and move on, Gold was still frustrated at the mistake. “I am just by nature what you would call a perfectionist and a bit of a nervous competitor, because I want it so much I could strangle myself. I really did put a lot of work into this event. Not just because it is nationals, but also for myself. That's why I was really upset with the mistake.”

In seventh place last year, Tyler Pierce is on her way to bettering her placement. In her short program Voices from the Forest, Pierce gritted out a triple toe-triple toe combination, triple loop, and double Axel jumps. Though some of the landings looked a bit messy, her determination in standing up on the jumps and strong spins put her into third place. “I tried to focus on the whole package and not just an all jump program. One with good choreography, spins, and footwork also for a complete program.” This is her third season using this music, which may have helped her comfort level with the program.

Like Gold, Wagner also made a mistake on her first jumping pass, under-rotating, then falling on the second jump in her triple flip-triple toe combination. Brushing off the error, the fierce Wagner continued to perform her program, sambaing down the ice to Hip Hip Chin Chin by Club des Belugas. “That was not a program that I shied away from,” Wagner said. “I attacked the whole thing and I am honestly totally fine with that.”

Though she’s almost eight points out of first place, Wagner is confident in her ability to make up the difference in the free skate. “My long program is more than capable of making up a fifteen point difference. I am not saying that I have an easy job, I think Polina was spectacular tonight, but the long program is my game.”

Moving with lovely flow across the ice, Mariah Bell, skating to the Celtic New Age tune StormCry by David Arkenstone, missed the second jump in the triple Lutz-triple toe that she hit in the warm up. The Colorado based Bell has an ease and freedom to her skating, which shined in the steps and field moves. Regrouping after the fall, she landed a triple flip and a double Axel. The 2015-2016 season saw Bell compete three times on the international stage, experience which seems to have paid off in increasing her comfort level on the ice. She’s right behind Nagasu, in sixth place.

Making a case for a Junior World Team assignment, Bradie Tennell, included an attempt at a triple Lutz-triple toe combination (the second jump was called for under-rotation) and a triple flip that traveled so far she nearly hit the boards. Her non-jump elements in her short program to The Storm by Balázs Havasi, helped make up the difference, as all were called level four.

Every Nationals, a skater who qualified from Sectionals has a skate out of her skin performance, and surprises expectations. In 2016, that skater was Franchesca Chiera. Skating to the flamenco Nyah, Chiera landed triple flip-double toe combination, a triple Lutz, and double Axel, and finished in eighth place.

After winning a Silver medal at the NHK Competition, Courtney Hicks came into U.S. Nationals as one of the favorites to medal. With her powerful skating and high jumps, a clean program could have kept her in contention. Unfortunately, falls on both the solo triple Lutz, and the second half of her triple flip-triple toe loop combination, put her back in eleventh place.

Last year’s bronze medalist Karen Chen, also came in as a favorite, and fell on her first two jump elements to finish twelfth. Chen is extremely fast across the ice, and while the jumps were not with her this evening, she still wowed the St. Paul audience with her spins and a beautiful spiral.

With three skaters virtually tied for second place, the stage is set for an intense competition in the free program. But, hopefully, no more chaos.