Oct 21 Skate America Success En Route To Sochi

By Brandon Penny | Oct. 21, 2012, 9:45 p.m. (ET)

Team USA's Christina Gao (silver) and Ashley Wagner (gold) and Russia's Adelina Sotnikova (bronze) pose with their medals at 2012 Hilton HHonors Skate America.

KENT, Wash. – The United States did not medal in ladies’ figure skating at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games.  It was the first time the U.S. women did not medal at the Games in 46 years, when the U.S., led by Peggy Fleming, went 6-7-8 at the Innsbruck 1964 Olympic Winter Games.

Ashley Wagner is unofficially leading a campaign to bring Olympic hardware back to the States at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.  And Christina Gao is close behind.

Wagner and Gao sent a message to the world on Sunday, earning gold and silver respectively at 2012 Hilton HHonors Skate America, the first of six events in the 2012-2013 Grand Prix Series.  The last U.S. women to go 1-2 at a Grand Prix event were Sasha Cohen and Jennifer Kirk at the 2003 Skate America.

Wagner finished first in both Saturday’s short program, setting her up well for the free skate.

“After the short program I definitely thought it was plausible to win the whole event, and it was a good and bad thing because then I started worrying about it a little bit,” Wagner said.  “I was happy that I was able to go out there and keep my nerves under control and really stay focused on what I wanted to accomplish.”

This is Wagner’s first Grand Prix gold medal in her sixth season on the circuit and twelfth Grand Prix event.  In the past five seasons, she has come very close to that elusive gold, with four fourth-place finishes, four bronze medals and one silver medal.  Now that she has a Grand Prix gold medal, Four Continents gold medal and a national title all under her belt, Wagner can finally shed the self-imposed title “almost girl.”

“I feel now I can let that go,” Wagner said.  “It’s not that I’m a different person than I was; I’m the exact same person, I just have the mental strength to perform how I do in practice, which makes it a lot more enjoyable.”

Prior to last season, Wagner moved to California to train under coach John Nicks.  It was a move that has paid off tenfold and brought her a newfound confidence and success.  Nicks’ teaching was evident in Wagner’s free skate at Skate America, as she visibly fought for several jumps.

“At least two of the elements, she was really in trouble technically,” Nicks said.  “She fought out, refused to go down and give up, and that’s the way a true champion approaches anything – do not give up and fight through all the time, even when things are not particularly comfortable.”

“The one thing working with Mr. Nicks has really taught me is that you can’t give away jumps, you really have to fight for every single thing,” Wagner said.  “We work every day on my consistency. A lot of the success rate of those jumps is because of that. [I have] the confidence that even if something is off, I can have the speed to get out of it and land it.”

The Skate America success was also monumental for Gao.  It was her first senior Grand Prix medal, in only her second season on the circuit.  Gao admitted she did not expect to medal.

“It’s a cherry on top,” she said.  “I just wanted to come and do what I’ve been doing in practice, which I did, and if that was good enough to get me a medal – yay!”

Even more impressive was Gao’s success despite a recent move from Toronto to Boston to attend Harvard University.  The move included switching coaches from two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser to four-time Swedish champion Peter Johansson and 1993 U.S. silver medalist Mark Mitchell.

“I’m really proud of her,” Johansson said.  “She has, in a very short time, prepared for this season, adapted to the new life with school and a different rink to skate at with new coaches.  She has been nothing but great, she adapted very quickly, did everything she was supposed to and I hope this can give her some confidence and keep going for the year.”

Gao’s fifth-place and tenth-place finishes at her Grand Prix events last year left her frustrated and unsure if she should continue skating.

“Now I’m really, really glad I did.  I’m relieved.  It’s like, ‘Okay, I made a good decision.’  I think it was the right decision for me.”

ICE DANCE

Team USA also made ice dance history on Sunday.  The tour-de-force pair of Meryl Davis and Charlie White earned their third consecutive Skate America gold medal.  Davis and White became the second ice dance couple ever to win three straight Skate America titles.  The only other team to do so is Americans Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto (2003-2005).

“It’s interesting because ice dance has evolved so much from the older generation, then on to Tanith and Ben’s era of the start of the new judging system and then on to Charlie and myself as the American representatives,” Davis said.  “I think America has made such a name for itself in the ice dance division that being able to come represent and win Skate America as an American ice dance team is really a special feeling, and it’s something that unfortunately previous American ice dance teams weren’t able to do because America didn’t have that strong force in the international scene.”

“We definitely don’t take it for granted ... Skate America is very important to us and we definitely want to represent and show our home crowd some really good programs, and it’s always nice when we can do that and take home first place,” White said.

Their third consecutive Skate America title also marked their 13th international gold medal out of their past 18 competitions (they took silver at the other four).  Among those medals are 2011 World Figure Skating Championships gold and 2010 Olympic silver.  Davis and White have their sights set on a second world title later this season and earning their first Olympic gold in Sochi next season to cap off their 16-year career together.

Belbin and Agosto, the 2006 Olympic silver medalists and five-time U.S. champions, were in attendance at this year’s Skate America and thoroughly impressed by the success of their former training mates.

“They did a fantastic job today, debuting what I think is probably their most challenging program to date, both technically and more importantly artistically,” Belbin said.  “They’re trying to push themselves in new directions and develop that emotional chemistry that critics have said they can’t capture in their programs, so I think that they’re definitely moving in the direction that they have to if they want to take that next step into complete dominance in ice dance.”

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