Decisions abound as U.S. figure skating championships come to a close

Sunday January 12th, 2014

Polina Edmunds performed well at the U.S. championships, but that doesn't guarantee a spot at Sochi.
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

BOSTON -- An unlikely showing by an emerging star of U.S. figure skating sent officials searching through the rulebooks for clarification Saturday night, with their decision possibly impacting a spot on the Olympic team. Polina Edmunds was not among the favorites to earn a trip to Sochi, but the 15-year-old placed second at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston Saturday, behind champ Gracie Gold and ahead of Mirai Nagasu in third and veteran Ashley Wagner in fourth. These are national championships rather than defined Olympic trials, so a nine-member panel of U.S. Figure Skating officials will meet to nominate a team for the Olympics on Sunday based largely, but not exclusively, on results from the championships. If the U.S. has qualified three places for a particular discipline and one of the top candidates -- individuals or teams -- doesn't skate well, the officials can still elect to send someone who is either injured or further down in the standings because of an off day. Based on results at the world championships last spring, the U.S. earned three places in both the ladies and dance events, but just two in men's and pairs. For that reason, the real buzz may well take place on Sunday once the skaters are off the ice and the Olympic teams are announced.

Edmunds easily met a minimum points qualification standard this year, winning a pair of competitions on the international junior grand prix circuit. But she has no international results as a senior, and late Saturday Mitch Moyer, the Senior Director of High Performance for U.S. Figure Skating, was in a hallway scrolling through International Skating Union rules on his iPhone trying to see if Edmunds' junior scores would be sufficient to allow U.S. officials to consider her for a place on the team. "I'm sending an email and we'll have confirmation by morning," Moyer said. It seemed inconceivable that such a detail would remain uncertain at this stage of an Olympic season, but with ladies, pairs and dance competitions completed in Boston and only the men's long program to go on Sunday, it left perhaps the greatest drama here for a meeting room in the arena.

On a day marked by spills and thrills at the championships, some hopefuls wrote likely tickets to Sochi. First-time ladies champ Gold and ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White -- who won their sixth title -- are likely in, as well as an emerging face of the future (Edmunds) and a reemerging skater from the past with a promise finally fulfilled (Nagasu). Others, such as two-time national champ Wagner, left their standing in jeopardy, with final teams to be announced to Sunday.

The girl with the perfect Olympic name, Gold likely secured her spot with a dynamic free skate to the music of Sleeping Beauty that clearly woke up the crowd. She hit six of seven triple jumps, putting her hands down on a triple flip midway through what was otherwise a lively and clean program. It has been a busy year for Gold, who switched coaches to veteran mentor Frank Carroll in September. The 18-year-old Newton, Mass. native was a fan favorite even before she hit the ice. "It's a dream come true," she said of her first national title. "I couldn't have asked for more."

Gold will be named to the team for sure. That leaves two spots for the next three skaters.

Edmunds hit it out of the park with a great short program on Thursday that left her in a surprise second place, but was more guarded during Saturday's free skate. She fell on one jump, a triple flip, and twice took the third jumps out of three-jump combinations. Still, even with some tenativeness, she established herself as a new face of the team with stunning spins and grace that suggests a fine future.

Nagasu, 20, was the pleasant surprise of redemption at the championships. Four years ago, the Californian teenager seemed like a star in waiting after placing fourth at the Vancouver Games. She since went through a bumpy stretch and came to Boston without a full-time coach. Nagasu was left to plead her case for the team after the competition. "I am the only one here with Olympic experience," she said. "I'm hoping the committee will consider that."

The normally solid Wagner, 22, had a rough ride in the long program. She fell on the second half of a triple flip-triple toe combination, fell on a triple loop later in the program and omitted the last jump of a triple flip-double toe-double toe sequence that was to be the capper of her free skate. Wagner looked lost after her skate was done and could be seen mouthing the words "I'm sorry" to nobody in particular. Though she has been a solid competitor for many years, with a world medal on her resume, her Olympic hopes now seem iffy.

The country's best hope for an Olympic medal in any discipline, Davis and White left nothing to chance, gliding away with their sixth consecutive national title and a certain berth on their second Olympic team. With a superb performance skated to Scheherazade that depicts the tale of 1001 Arabian Nights, the reigning world champions finished a decisive 20 points ahead of their nearest competitors, Madison Chock and Evan Bates. The brother and sister team of Maia and Alex Shibutani, popular locals originally from the Boston area and now training in Michigan, placed third and are also likely to make the team. The Shibs, as they are known, won a world bronze medal in 2011. At this point, Davis and White will be tough to beat in Sochi, even with reigning Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir back for more. For their free skate, they earned a flawless mark of 60.00 for composition, earning top marks for skating skills, footwork and transitions, performance/execution, choreography and interpretation timing. It was the kind of skate that could one day win an Olympic title. "We didn't think too much about it coming into it," White said. "That's the way we always work with any competition. Now that's it's here, we are really proud of our consistency."

Simon Shnapir and Marissa Castelli defended their national pairs championship, skating to music from Skyfall. But this competition was much closer on the scoreboard. The champions finished with 205.71 points, followed by Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay in second with 201.72 and Caydee Denney and John Coughlin in third with 201.43. This leaves a tough decision for the committee. Denney, 20, and Coughlin, 28, finished with the highest score in the free skate competition and they were the most highly regarded of the three. They were national champions in 2012, but missed nationals last year when Coughlin suffered a torn labrum in his hip. Coughlin is well established, having won a national title with another partner, Caitlin Yankowskas, and placing sixth with her at worlds in 2011. With Denney he was eighth in 2012. Zhang and Bartholomay have never competed together at a worlds or Olympics, but are likely to skate for another four years and can build on their showing from this season. Shnapir and Castelli are a near certain selection, but with no medals expected for U.S. pairs in Sochi, would the team be better served with Denney and Coughlin, who may be better suited for a good showing at the games, or Zhang and Bartholomay, who may have a stronger upside and, after all, finished second in Boston?

The decisions will be announced shortly after noon on Sunday and will be sure to send skaters and coaches for another spin.

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