Chen holds off 3-time champ Wagner to win US championship
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Karen Chen probably didn't see Ashley Wagner giving her a curt nod from the ice, not with her face buried in her hands after another memorable performance at the U.S. figure skating championships.
The three-time champion was focused on warming up for her own performance in the free skate, yet Wagner couldn't help but acknowledge near-perfection - and the standard she now faced.
Wagner proceeded to lay down her own dramatic program, but it wasn't enough to overtake the 17-year-old Chen. Her elegant short program performed to ''On Golden Pond'' was followed by a darker, more emotional free skate set to ''Jealousy Tango'' that made her a surprising first-time national champion.
''I skated such a great short and I was definitely thrilled with it,'' Chen said, ''so I definitely had some pressure going into the long, thinking I really had a chance at this.''
The bronze medalist two years ago, Chen's free skate score of 141.40 gave her a 214.22 total, which stood up when Wagner under-rotated a combination and had a final combination spin reduced to a Level 2 in her own program. That left the world silver medalist with a score of 140.84 and a 211.78 composite.
''Karen has deserved the placement she's gotten so far. That's awesome for figure skating,'' Wagner said. ''I think we're going to be seeing a very strong world team.''
Mariah Bell earned bronze with a free skate set to music from ''East of Eden,'' the silver medalist from Skate America overcoming a shaky beginning with a strong finish.
Earlier in the day, Maia and Alex Shibutani weathered a nervous few minutes watching Madison Chock and Evan Bates before winning their second consecutive ice dance gold, while Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier made a triumphant return from injury to win the pairs competition.
''We're very pleased with the progression that both programs have made over the course of the last several months,'' Alex Shibutani said, ''but particularly between Grand Prix Final and this competition.''
Defending champion Gracie Gold, whose season has been such a disappointment, continued to struggle in the ladies' free skate. She had a two-foot landing on a triple loop early in the program, then singled a double axel, and never was able to get back on track.
She almost looked defeated as she skated off the ice, hugging a stuffed animal tightly.
''I'm just not processing any emotions yet,'' Gold said. ''I'm just choosing not to process any because it's just, again more, kind of bad feelings - changes I need. Improvements I need.''
Chen followed her record-breaking short program, choreographed by herself, with another dazzling performance to cap the penultimate night of nationals. She landed six triples, her spin positions were sublime, and she even managed to flash a big grin after landing a triple lutz.
When her score was revealed, she buried her face in her hands, almost in disbelief.
''There was definitely a lot of pressure, knowing that I skated the short of my dreams,'' she said. ''I wanted to follow it up with a close-to-perfect long.''
After giving the leader a curt nod, Wagner proceeded to give her program everything she had. She landed seven triples with the hallmark showmanship that has served her so well on the national stage, and even earned a standing ovation for the performance.
She didn't earn the score she needed, though. Not quite.
''I know you always you want to come away from this with a win. But my goal from the start of this has been to get through nationals,'' Wagner said, ''especially coming off a difficult Grand Prix season.''
The Shibutani siblings, perhaps the best hope for American gold at next year's Winter Olympics, had a technically flawless routine to a slow, hypnotizing musical selection to finish with 200.05 points.
The duo of Chock and Bates proceeded with a dazzling display set to ''Under Pressure'' by David Bowie. And did they ever perform under pressure, winning the free skate and rocketing into second with a score of 199.04, well ahead of bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.
''A lot of times we get hung up on results,'' Bates said, ''and it truly doesn't reflect on how our skating has grown, and how our partnership has evolved and I think if we watch the progression of our skating over even the last 12 months we'd be really pleased with it.''
Denney and Frazier were sidelined last season following Denney's knee surgery, and the duo watched nationals at the Olympic training center. But they were back in the spotlight on Saturday night, making it through a program with a few bobbles to overtake Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran.
The final pair on the ice, Denney and Frazier finished with a score of 188.32, while Castelli and Tran came from fourth after the short program to finish with 186.28 points.
Ashley Cain and Tim LeDuc, who won the short program, hung on for the bronze medal.
''Things felt like we had to fight for them,'' Denney said. ''Sometimes we do elements that are like, so easy. Of course you, like, want that perfect performance where it feels like that in nationals. Even though it didn't feel like that, I'm very happy that we fought through it.''
AP Sports Writer Dan Gelston contributed to this report.