Gold, Wagner each seek another US figure skating title

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) Gracie Gold practiced making eye contact with the audience. She ''did so many spins it drove me nuts.''

What the reigning U.S. figure skating champion couldn't do for nearly all of December was jump. She's now had 3 1/2 weeks to work on her triples to try to defend her title when nationals open Thursday.

''I still feel almost as if I'd been training the whole time,'' Gold said Wednesday.

Gold and Ashley Wagner were the only Americans to qualify individually for the Grand Prix Final. Gold had to pull out because of a stress fracture in her left foot, while Wagner went on to win bronze.

Wagner will be seeking her third U.S. title, winning two straight before Gold broke through last year. So both know they can thrive on the national stage. This week's competition is also a chance to show they can put together the kind of program to win a medal at the world championships. No American woman has accomplished that feat since Kimmie Meissner won gold and Sasha Cohen took bronze in 2006.

Before last year's U.S. Championships, Wagner, now 23, figured the 2014 Games would be her last chance for an Olympic medal. In Sochi, she decided she'd progressed so much in six months with coach Rafael Arutyunyan that she wanted to see what they could achieve together in four more years.

A win this week to open the cycle before the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, Wagner said, would mean ''starting in the right direction to the Olympic podium.''

Wagner was seventh in Sochi. Her solid performances were redemption for last year's nationals, where she fell twice in her free skate to finish a distant fourth, earning one of the three Olympic spots based on her previous successes.

Polina Edmunds was ninth in Sochi at age 15, competing in her first international competition at the senior level.

Gold, now 19, was fourth, though well out of the bronze position. She thinks she initially dislocated a bone in her foot during off-ice training this fall - an injury that's common among runners but not figure skaters - which led to the stress fracture. So Gold isn't allowed to run right now, but she can cleanly land a triple lutz-triple toe loop combination. Gold has needed to limit the number of triple toes she attempts in practice, but otherwise she's been pleasantly surprised at how quickly her jumps came back.

Now she'll try to land them in competition starting with Thursday's short program at the Greensboro Coliseum, best known for hosting college basketball during the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. The pairs short program is earlier Thursday, with the competition wide open after two-time defending champs Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir split in the spring.

In ice dancing, which opens Friday, Olympic gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White are taking a break, leaving Madison Chock and Evan Bates as the favorites.

The men's short program follows later Friday. Jeremy Abbott won his fourth U.S. title a year ago at what was supposed to be his last nationals before retirement. Then he rethought those plans, still seeking to match his success at U.S. Championships at a major international event. The 29-year-old Abbott's father, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, died earlier this month.

Jason Brown joined Abbott as the two American men on the 2014 Olympic team. Brown, who turned 20 last month, still isn't ready to add a quad, which is all but a prerequisite to win major international medals. For the first time, Brown doesn't come into nationals as an underdog.

His frenetic ''Riverdance'' long program that went viral after last year's U.S. Championships has been replaced by a more somber piece, a chance to challenge himself in a new way.

Max Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champ, is back, while big-jumping 15-year-old Nathan Chen will be competing at his first senior nationals.

They could all be chasing Brown, who can find a positive spin for practically anything, including the pressure of his sudden status as the favorite.

''Don't come in and think I have to be any different than I was the year before,'' he said of the advice he's received. ''Just being myself through thick and thin, through the good and the bad, being that genuine same person that I am no matter what success I have.''

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