Three spots up for grabs at nationals
BOSTON -- It will be a long weekend in the truest sense, a little under seven minutes on the ice apiece over the next four days for the women competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
While much of the discussion on the men's side revolves around whether quadruple jumps are necessary to book passage to Sochi, there is far more talk of psychological fitness than the intricacies of triple-triples among the women on the eve of Thursday night's short program.
If the competition plays out according to form, two of those three spots will be claimed by Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold, one a much-traveled veteran motivated by the "almosts" of the past and the other still striving to find a consistent groove to match her great promise. Several others will scrap for the third ticket.
Wagner is a far more confident skater than she was four years ago, but will not allow herself to feel overly secure.
"I've been doing everything I possibly can to make sure I go into this event prepared," the two-time defending U.S. champion told reporters on a recent conference call. She added that her third-place finish at December's Grand Prix final was "the perfect competition to happen to me ... a nice little reality check that I needed to kind of remember how to skate scared, and figure out how to train for that. I know, going into nationals, it's not going to be easy. It's definitely a very overwhelming competition mentally."
It seems unlikely that anyone could be as well-trained between the ears as Wagner, who finished third four years ago and just missed making the Olympic team. She has been driven by that setback ever since.
Wagner threw her deck of cards in the air, moving across the country to California and new coaching. She took a day job to be self-sufficient financially. She visibly grew up.
Last year, she made good on a verbal commitment to help the U.S. regain a third Olympic spot for Sochi as she and Gold earned the combined placements necessary at world championships. Then Wagner shifted her focus to constructing a second straight quality Grand Prix season.
But the ground shifted under her twice. Venerable coach John Nicks, who helped re-mold her into a sophisticated performer, stopped traveling, forcing Wagner to go to a two-headed system; she now trains primarily with Rafael Arutyunyan. She also split publicly with her choreographer.
Wagner kept her balance, finishing second at Skate America, winning the Trophee Bompard in Paris and taking a bronze at the Grand Prix final after a long program she said "wasn't phenomenal." She's tried to see the good in that.
"I think it's very easy, not to get cocky, but to forget what it's like to go into panic mode and then you just never know what's going to happen, and I think I sort of started to panic at the Grand Prix final," she said. "I'm a perfectionist, so it's very easy for me to get overwhelmed by mistakes and frustration. It's really been about disciplining myself, to keep on pushing through mistakes and, beyond that, just visualizing and practicing and preparing for the nerves I'll feel at nationals."
Gold has had an even bigger transition over the past few months as she left her Midwestern base to work with a proven mentor of Olympic medalists, Frank Carroll, in Southern California.
As if that wasn't enough change, Gold and Carroll bucked convention by switching her short program a scant two months before nationals after a fourth-place finish at her second Grand Prix event, the NHK Trophy in Japan. She will debut it in competition Thursday -- new music, new dress and all -- in a pressure situation.
Gold last season admitted she viewed short programs as obstacles to survive, which she did in dramatic fashion at the 2013 nationals, following a disastrous short with a brilliant free skate that vaulted her into second place overall.
Carroll thought her original short program this season, set to the music of George Gershwin, was too "modern" and ambitious altogether, Gold said. He asked her to consult with Lori Nichol, one of the premier choreographers in the sport and the coach's frequent collaborator. As soon as Gold heard one of Nichol's selections, Edvard Grieg's "Piano Concerto," she was hooked on the feeling.
"As soon as I started working with Lori and she played the music that first morning, it just felt right," she told reporters. "I just had that instant connection with the music. I love it. I love doing it day in and day out in practice. It's so calm and so beautiful. There's not much more I could ask for."
Gold has since performed the program at a couple of shows with spotlights, but on smaller sheets of ice with smaller crowds and far less at stake. "I don't think it's that big of a risk," she said. "I'm really just focusing on all of the rewards. I think it will be a more universally liked piece ... We know it's a great program and I just have to deliver it."
Carroll's tutelage has helped Gold alter her demeanor from "frantic" to being intense at the appropriate junctures. "I'm taking my time, breathing and not just charging across the ice, enjoying each moment on the ice," she said. "You attack at the right moments in the program and relax in others, and I think that's what makes those great performances."
Among those vying for the third spot on the team are 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu, two-time Grand Prix medalist Christina Gao and Agnes Zawadzki, the 2010 world junior silver medalist who recently returned to the coach under whom she enjoyed much of her early success, Tom Zakrajsek.
Zawadzki isn't thinking of herself as the person who might slide into the last seat on the bus, however.
"You don't go into a competition saying, 'I hope I get the third spot,'" she said. "I don't want to just make it. I want to make an impact at nationals and skate a really great short and a really great long."