Ashley Wagner back on top in U.S. women's figure skating

Ashley Wagner leaves her U.S. rivals far behind with her performance in the free skate program

Hot rivalry between Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold in U.S. women's figure skating?

Not Saturday night.

Not with the peerless performance Wagner delivered to win her third national title in the last four years, one that gave her an in-your-face feeling when expressed with characteristic feistiness an hour later.

"This is the one that means the most," Wagner said. "It shows every single person that doubts me, says I'm too old, that I'm not capable of being a leading lady, that they should shut their mouths and watch me skate."

Over the last 25 years, only Michelle Kwan has won more U.S women's titles.

Wagner crushed 2014 champion Gracie Gold — and everyone else — with the best skate of her life by any standard — marks, elan, athleticism, competitive will.

It sent the judges into paroxysms of gratitude that showed in the marks. They gave her a free skate score, 148.98, that was the first over 140 in U.S. history and left her nearly 16 points ahead of Gold, who fell on one jump in a flat performance.

A 15-year-old, Karen Chen of Fremont, Calif., had stolen the show in her senior nationals debut, until Wagner took the ice before 11,416 at the Greensboro Coliseum.

Skating 100 mph from start to finish, with phenomenal rotation speed on the layback spin ending her free skate, the 4-foot-10 Chen took third, seven points ahead of 2014 Olympian and U.S. runner-up Polina Edmunds. But Chen is age-ineligible for the senior worlds in March, so Edmunds will almost certainly get the third spot.

Skating to music from the film "Moulin Rouge," in total command of a program with by far the highest jump difficulty of her career, Wagner seems to have answered all the questions that followed after she slopped her way to a spot on the 2014 Olympic team with a two-fall, desultory free skate last year.

"I felt like people were starting to write me off, and I wasn't giving them any reason to feel I was competitive," Wagner said.

At 23, she has met the challenge of learning new technical tricks to give her a chance against younger Russians who are dominating the sport.

Among her seven successful triple jumps were two triple lutzes, one in a triple-triple combination and the other 20 seconds from the end of the four-minute program. Until Thursday's short program, she had never attempted a triple lutz-triple toe. It is the hardest combination any elite skater is doing this season.

"This is the first competition in a while where I've had two totally solid performances, where I said I was going to put out two solid performances and done that," Wagner said.

Gold, 19, had two performances with significant flaws, making a total hash of her triple flip jump in the free skate.

"Some of the flaws were fatal," Gold said, while admitting how hard it was to skate right after Wagner.

Earlier this month, Wagner had thanked Gold for the pressure her strong skating last year had applied.

"Gracie has been kind of a gift because she really pushes me," Wagner said. "In skating, she makes me uncomfortable because she is always kind of breathing down my neck."

Wagner put herself out of range to feel any such chill on the ice Saturday night.

phersh@tribpub.com

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