This past week in Cleveland, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships took place, featuring an incredibly talented array of women vying for four medals and two spots on the World team. Notably missing were former U.S. and World champion, Kimmie Meissner, and last year's silver medalist, Emily Hughes, both out due to injury. But if there's a year to miss, it's this year since next year's winners will determine the Olympic team.
After the Short Program, Alissa Czisny, the veteran of the group and one of the most talented skaters in the world, held the lead. An unusual placement for Czisny who has suffered nerves, inconsistency and other setbacks over the years, she came into the Free Skate with a strong lead. She was followed by Rachel Flatt, Caroline Zhang, and Brittey Rizo. Mirai Nagasu, last year's champion, was sin 6th after the Short Program and Ashley Wagner, who took the bronze last year, was far back in 12th place, a position from which a medal looked impossible.
The beautiful thing about "nationals" as skaters call it, is that new and lesser known skaters at the three top levels each year get a chance to dazzle audiences. It's a great place to witness up and coming talents. Last year, four young skaters entered the landscape: Zhang, Flatt, Nagasu and Wagner, all of whom can do triple-triple jump combinations and who have beautiful artistry. Wagner stepped out of her triple lutz, but as Scott Hamilton said, she as an "intensity" to her skating & all her other moves were solid.
Laney Diggs skated soon after, relatively new on the Senior competitive scene. Working with Michelle Kwan's old coach, Frank Carroll, Diggs skated a nice Les Miserables program although her triple jumps could use some work flowing out vs. just up. She will be one to watch over the next few years as well. Mirai Nagasu skated injured after growing four inches over the past year and battling how that changes one's center of gravity on the ice. Defending her title, she began her program in tears, clearly anticipating a challenging event. However, she skated beautifully and cleanly, ending with a huge smile.
Another new skater, Brittney Rizo, who placed third last year at the Junior level, skated the most innovative "Carmen" I've seen in a while. Then the final leaders came out. Rachel Flatt, one of few who did a solid triple-triple played points smartly with a solid triple-double after the half way mark. Her highly consistent manner and spins in both directions at the end of the program (very difficult) pulled her into the overall lead at that point. Caroline Zhang skated next to "Ave Maria" in a light lavender & pink dress my daughter adored. She started with a beautiful triple-triple followed by a triple lutz, double toe, and she ended with a gorgeous Bielman spin, finishing slightly behind Flatt.
Czisny, skating last as leader and the local favorite from Ohio, began her skate with the crowd on her side. After a strong start, she fell on her triple lutz and doubled the jump following, an error that she knew could cost her the gold. Her amazing spins, mature presentation and gorgeous extension, however, pulled her up on top, enough to secure the win. Flatt took silver, Zhang, bronze, and Wagner, who actually won the Free Skate event after finishing 12th in the Short Program, was able to take home a pewter medal.
There are those who say the judges propped up Czisny, but often these people are not figure skaters. It's a tough sport to judge and the new system still confuses many people, but after skating for thirty years, competing for nearly fifteen and doing some judging myself, I can say that the gold medal was solidly earned by Czisny. Czisny earned a berth to the World Championships in Los Angeles late March, along with Flatt. Zhang, Wagner and Nagasu are the three alternates. In previous years, the American ladies have held three spots, but due to Worlds placements last year, we only received two berths for the Ladies this year.
Why am I going into all of this minutiae? Because March 22nd in Los Angeles, Czisny and Flatt have an important challenge: to place well enough that the U.S. can send three skaters to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Joining them on the World team will be gold medalist Jeremy Abbott, Evan Lysacek and Brandon Mroz of the men (sadly Johnny Weir did not skate well enough in Cleveland to be named to the team) of the men.
Pairs teams Caydee Denney & Jeremy Barrett, Keauna McLaughlin & Rockne Brubaker and Dance teams Meryl Davis & Charlie White and Emily Samuelson & Evan Bates, winners in their respective events, round out the team. Also earning a berth to Worlds, the team who won a silver medal at the 2006 Olympics and who withdrew from nationals due to injury. (In rare cases, the U.S. Figure Skating Association will grant berths to applicants with exceptional histories.) Since Belbin & Agosto are largely responsible for the World team having three Ice Dance berths, they deserve the spot.
It's tough to believe we're nearly to another Winter Olympics. One year from now, we'll know who's going. It could be two or three of the incredible skaters mentioned above. But for now, all eyes on the World Championships in Los Angeles and congratulations to all of the skaters at all levels who made it to nationals - an achievement in itself.
Sarah Granger is working through the difficult transition from figure skater to figure skating mom. She usually writes about politics, because it's a tamer sport.
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