SAN JOSE, Calif. - Ashley Wagner is the "Almost Girl" no more.
Wagner won her first title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday, salvaging what was an otherwise dismal night of splats and spills with a majestic rendition of "Black Swan." She finished with a score of 187.02 points and then watched as two-time champion Alissa Czisny and Agnes Zawadzki melted down.
When the final results were posted, tears filled Wagner's eyes and she rested a hand on the shoulder of coach John Nicks. She beamed when she climbed to the top of the podium, her smile as bright as the gold medal around her neck.
"I can't even describe how happy I am," Wagner said. "It's been since the junior Grand Prix circuit since I've been on top of a podium, and I almost forgot what it felt like. When I got up on the podium today, it was an incredible feeling and made me realize why I do this crazy sport."
Czisny finished second and Zawadzki wound up third. Earlier Saturday, Meryl Davis and Charlie White claimed their fourth straight title with a performance that showed why they set the gold standard in ice dance these days. The world champions' elegant and seamless routine to "Die Fledermaus" earned a total score of 191.54 points, nearly 13 better than siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani.
The U.S. has been looking for someone — anyone — with the star power and skill to carry the Americans like Michelle Kwan did for almost a decade. The Americans have gone five years without a medal at the world championships, and they came home empty-handed from the Vancouver Olympics. For the fourth straight year, they'll have only two spots at the world championships.
It's a drought the likes of which the Americans have never experienced, and the shortcomings were made all the more glaring this week by Kwan's return to nationals to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Wagner has never been shy about saying she wants to be the best in the U.S., a skater who can hold her own against the Russians and the Japanese.
"No one's going to say they don't want to be national champion so I think I'm not being cocky, I'm just saying what everyone else is thinking," Wagner said. "No one goes into nationals saying, 'I don't want to be a gold medallist , third place is good enough for me.' Why not say what you're thinking instead of putting on an act?"
But she always seemed to come up just short, finishing third in 2010 and missing a spot on the Olympic team. She also was third in 2008.
Hence that "Almost Girl" nickname.
Wagner had a particularly rough season last year. A head injury from when she was 13 was never treated properly, and the bones in her neck began pressing into her spinal cord, setting off "crippling body tremors." It took two hours of therapy each day with a chiropractor to correct the problem.
When the season ended, Wagner decided she needed to make a radical change if she was ever going to achieve the goals she wanted. She left her family and friends on the East Coast and moved to Southern California to train with Nicks, best known as Sasha Cohen's coach.
"I was really nervous going out there because I felt like it was getting to the point where I wanted it so bad," Wagner said. "Then I remembered that I've made all these changes for a reason. I've learned so much in my time in California and I needed to use that new training. Mr. Nicks has done a great job of helping me refocus."
Third after the short program, Wagner needed a spectacular performance and some help from others. She did her part, a refreshing departure after a night of lacklustre, one-dimensional performances. Wagner actually used her music and her portrayal of the "Black Swan" character was so vivid, 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, and she could have been a swan floating on the lake for how elegantly she moved across the ice.
She wasn't perfect, popping a triple salchow and touching her free foot down on her triple flip.
But it hardly mattered. None of the other top women skated cleanly, though some were much worse than others.
Czisny got off to rough start, putting her hand down on her opening triple lutz, and things didn't improve after that. She fell on her second triple lutz and was crooked in the air on a few other jumps. She was saved by her spins, which were gorgeous as always, high component marks for her elegant presentation.
"I'm not really sure what to think about tonight," a subdued Czisny said. "I knew the program I put out there tonight wasn't my best, wasn't what I wanted to do. At the same time, I guess it got me where I needed to be."
Zawadzki won the short program, and looked early on as she might hang onto the top spot. She opened with a double Axel-triple toe loop combination that was bigger and smoother than any other jump done any other woman did Saturday night. But Zawadzki is just 17, two years removed from winning the junior title, and she quickly became overwhelmed by the moment.
"I think I started getting a little ahead of myself instead of staying in the present," she said.
She fell twice, crashing on a triple lutz and a triple salchow, and popped a triple toe that was supposed to be the opening jump of a combination. She also brushed up against the boards on a triple lutz-double toe combination. She dropped all the way to seventh in the long program and barely managed to hold off Caroline Zhang for third place.
"I've never been in this position so it's a different feeling for me," Zawadzki said. "I'm happy with what I've accomplished. I'm a little down on the long but happy with the overall result."
Wagner's next challenge will be at the world championships in March. Wagner and Czisny will need to finish with a combined placement of 13 to earn the Americans to spots at next year's all-important world championships, the qualifier for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
"I was on the team that lost the spot, so I really would like to be on the team that gains that spot back. I think that would be nice to tie that back up and put an end to my mistakes," said Wagner, who was 16th in 2008. "It's time the United States makes a claim in women's figure skating, and I think we have the talent here, we have the skaters. We just need to be able to go out there and put out consistent programs with triple-triples and show people that ladies figure skating in the U.S. is not over."
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