SAN JOSE, Calif. — Mirai Nagasu was fighting nerves. Karen Chen was fighting illness.
Bradie Tennell fought them off to win the U.S. Figure Skating Championships women’s title Friday night.
Then they all cried.
Rising star Tennell’s near-perfect free skate earned her first national crown and almost certainly a spot on the U.S. team for next month’s Olympics.
Tennell, a long shot entering the season, was spotless in the short program two days ago, then as the final skater in the long program she didn’t miss a trick under tremendous pressure. Her top competitors, Nagasu and Chen, already had put down superb routines.
“I just had to keep calm and focus on what I knew I could do,” Tennell said. “There’s the initial butterflies, but I kind of start to lose myself and keep going.
“I don’t think it’s sunk in quite yet. I’m still kind of shocked. It’s indescribable to me.”
Nagasu, U.S. champ 10 years ago and a 2010 Olympian, capped a sensationally sweet comeback with a flowing performance to finish second, virtually assuring a spot in next month’s Olympics — a berth she was denied four years ago by the selection committee. That position for Sochi was given to Ashley Wagner, who had finished fourth, one spot behind Nagasu, but had a better overall record.
Chen, the defending champion, was third and Wagner was fourth.
The three women headed to the Pyeongchang Games will be announced Saturday.
“I really put in my vote for the Olympic team,” said Nagasu, who has admitted the stress of competing often has gotten the best of her. “I was very unhappy with questions that were asked like, ‘If you make this Olympic team, that’ll be eight years in between.’ That’s a long time and I know that. This is about my journey, and that decision hasn’t been made yet. There is always that chance that I will be skipped over again, but right now I’m enjoying that performance, that training that went into it. To have it come to fruition like it did tonight makes me really emotional, and I cannot wait for the decision to come out.”
After overpowering the entry and two-footing the triple axel that no other American woman tries, Nagasu hit six triple jumps, including a loop in the final seconds of a stirring program. She was so moved by her performance that she broke out in tears and covered her face, trying to gain control of the emotions that often had betrayed her in critical moments.
She was still crying in, appropriately, the kiss and cry area when the marks showed Nagasu she had shattered her personal best by nearly 20 points with a 213.84.
Chen’s big season last year had not translated into achievement this campaign. She put those struggles to an icy death with a superb showing that had one flaw toward the end. She, too, was overcome by tears for a 198.59 score.
Tennell made it a trio of tears with her career best of 219.51. Tennell announced herself as an Olympic team threat with a third place at Skate America. Hardly ice shattering, but then she ratcheted up everything for nationals.
Wagner had the crowd going for most of her energetic routine, but a flawed lutz as her final jump was costly. She responded to the fans with a deep bow when she finished, yet was shaking her head “no” when her marks were posted.
“I’m furious, I am absolutely furious,” Wagner said. “I know when I go and I lay it down and I absolutely left one jump on the table, but for me to put out two programs that I did at this competition as solid as I skated and to get those scores, I am furious and I think deservedly so.”
Earlier, favorites Maia and Alex Shibutani outdistanced their top competition in the short dance. The free dance is Sunday.
The ice should sizzle when dancing to a Latin beat. The Shibutanis made sure it did.
Not that Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, or Madison Chock and Evan Bates weren’t smokin’. Far from it as all three couples staked early claims to the trio of berths available for Americans at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
With hefty competition from French and Canadian duos, only one podium spot is likely to come the Americans’ way. All of the U.S. contenders belong in consideration after their latest performances.
Latin music, including a rhumba, is required this year for the short dance. The brother-sister combination — “Shib Sibs” — showed speed and strength and even a tad of wickedness in the routine. The two-time defending champions and three-time world medalists punctuated their program with eight side-by-side twizzle turns as their music counted uno through ocho.
That was Alex’s idea, and it worked perfectly.
“It was just something we were listening to Perez Prado’s library of music and I heard ‘Mambo No. 8,’ and we’re always trying to push the boundaries of what we’re capable of doing,” he said. “Obviously, you’re only required to do four rotations per set … on the twizzles but we just thought that it would be kind of clever and fun and it would entertain ourselves.”
“And the audience,” Maia chimed in.
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