SAN JOSE, Calif. - Ashley Wagner knows all too well the importance of U.S. results at the next two world championships.
Wagner finished third at the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, a spot that would have been good enough to get her to the Olympics almost any other year. But a series of poor U.S. performances at worlds meant the Americans could send only two women to Vancouver, and Wagner was the odd one out.
"That was one of the hardest and lowest points in my career, for sure," she said.
One she doesn't want to repeat. Or see anyone else experience.
Slots for the Sochi Olympics won't be awarded until the 2013 world championships, but the Americans are already running behind. It will take a combined placement of 13 or better (fifth and eighth, for example) by the top two Americans at the 2013 worlds to secure the three Olympic spots that were once considered a birthright of U.S. skaters. Unlike years past, however, the Americans can no longer count on being able to "drop" one of their scores.
For the fourth year in a row, the U.S. women will have only two spots at this year's worlds. The men are down to two, as well, having lost their third spot last year. If the Americans don't hit that magic 13 at this year's worlds, they'll have only two spots again next year — and no margin for error for Sochi.
"It would be nice for all the ladies competing to not have to worry about the top two, but to be able to worry about the top three," Wagner said after winning her first U.S. title Saturday night. "It's time the U.S. makes a claim in women's figure skating, and I think we have the talent here, we have the skaters."
Wagner has already shown she can back up her big talk, jumping from third to first Saturday with a mesmerizing version of "Black Swan." She managed to convey both the elegance and the fierceness of her character, so much so it's a wonder feathers didn't pop out of her back. Her technical elements were woven right in with her artistic elements, rather than standing alone as individual tricks.
While she wasn't perfect — she popped a triple salchow and touched her free foot down on a triple flip — it was a performance that would stand up well against the world's other top women.
"If you work hard, it'll pay off," Wagner said. "The fact that I trusted myself and I believed that I could go out and put out that program and actually go do it, that speaks enough for itself."
Alissa Czisny didn't look like a world-beater in finishing second. But she's come a long way from the fragile skater whose meltdown at the 2009 worlds was so complete, it cost the U.S. that third spot in Vancouver.
Always a beautiful skater, she's finally developed the confidence required to be among the world's best. She won the Grand Prix final last year, and qualified again this year after winning Skate America and finishing third at Trophee Bompard. She was fifth at last year's world championships.
The Americans will also get a break because neither Miki Ando nor Kim Yu-na, last year's winner and runner-up, will be at worlds, March 26 to April 1 in Nice, France. Russia can't send its top two women, either, with Adelina Sotnikova and Elizaveta Tuktamysheva both too young to go.
"We just need to be able to go out there and put out consistent programs ... and show the world that ladies figure skating in the United States is not over," Wagner said.
The U.S. hurt itself by sending a woefully inexperienced men's team to last year's worlds. That won't be the case this year. Not only are Jeremy Abbott and two-time junior world champion Adam Rippon capable of reclaiming that third spot, a place on the podium is not out of the question if Abbott he skates as he did Sunday.
Needing only to stay on his feet to claim his third title, Abbott put on a sublime display of quiet elegance and superior skill that was simply bewitching. His final score of 273.58 was the highest ever at the U.S. championships, and puts him within striking distance of world champion Patrick Chan. It was about 12 points better than 2006 Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko scored in winning his seventh European title Saturday.
Abbott is one of the most technically sound skaters in the world, with beautiful edges that carve the ice like a master craftsman and perfect body control. He's also one of the few skaters who has managed to maintain the balance between the performance quality that makes figure skating so entertaining and the tough physical tricks the system now demands. But he's never commanded the international respect Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir did, flopping at the 2009 world championships and again at the Vancouver Olympics.
But Abbott has turned things around, thanks to an attitude adjustment following his dismal performance at last year's nationals.
"I do feel very much more comfortable in my own skin," he said. "I was pretty confident that I was going to do what I did (here)."
Abbott landed the only quadruple jump of the day, and his spins were so tight and perfectly centred that coaches will no doubt be asking for a DVD of them. It was his presence, however, that was truly spectacular, a joy and quiet elegance that comes when a skater lets the music wash over him and tell his body what to do.
"I'm not going to worry about getting that spot back. I'm going to focus on my goals and what I need to accomplish," Abbott said. "But if Adam and I skate the way that we can, we should have three spots next year."
Follow Nancy Armour at http://www.twitter.com/nrarmour
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