KENT, Wash. – The start of ladies and ice dance competition at 2012 Hilton HHonors Skate America, the first of six events in the 2012-2013 Grand Prix Series, proved successful for Team USA. Following the ladies short program and short dance, reigning U.S. champions Ashley Wagner and Meryl Davis and Charlie White lead the ladies and ice dance fields.
Wagner entered the competition eager to prove that her success from last season was not a fluke and she is on track to do just that. Wagner skated to first place after the short program with a score of 60.61.
“That was my first short program out under the spotlights and the crowd,” Wagner said. “I’m pleased with how it went. I felt really nervous going out, so the fact that I was thinking throughout the entire program, which I don’t really like to do, and I was able to stay on my feet and put out something that was quality, I’m happy.”
Over the past five seasons, Wagner has earned five medals (one silver, four bronze) on the senior Grand Prix circuit and could earn her first gold medal with a successful free skate Sunday.
“Going into the long program, the one thing [I need] to be prepared for is I’m skating last so I’ll have a lot of time in between my warm-up and my actual performance, but Mr. Nicks and I will work on that tomorrow.”
Wagner, 21, gave herself the title “the almost girl” in recent years, most notably for finishing one spot shy of making the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team. Last season she made it her objective to rid herself of the nickname. Wagner succeeded in that mission, winning her first U.S. Figure Skating Championships title, her first Four Continents Figure Skating Championships title, and finishing fourth at worlds (the best finish by an American woman in five years).
But with her newfound success comes added pressure.
“I’m on the side of the building, my picture’s everywhere,” she said. “It’s really cool for me but it makes you aware that more people are aware of what I’m doing. ... I acknowledge it and the more I acknowledge it the less it bothers me. I’m more focused on what I want to do here, which is two solid programs.”
Wagner is not the only American in medal contention. Christina Gao is sitting in third place after her short program score of 56.63, while Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova is in second with 58.93. Rachael Flatt, a 2010 Olympian and the 2010 U.S. champion, finished the day in 10th place.
“It was definitely one of my better skates, I was pretty confident going into it and I just let each jump happen like it always does, so it felt really good,” Gao said.
Gao recently changed coaches and training towns when she relocated to Boston to attend Harvard University. The 18-year-old is taking a full course load, which includes economics, math, Chinese and freshman seminar. Gao admits the transition was difficult at first but is now working out better than expected.
“It’s been amazing,” Gao said. “I absolutely love training in Boston. I love the people training there – I train with Ross [Miner] and Harrison [Choate] every day, and training with [coaches] Mark [Mitchell] and Peter [Johansson] has been amazing; the way they work on programs really fits me well.”
Gao will look to earn her first senior medal in only her third Grand Prix appearance.
If anyone else was feeling as much pressure as Wagner at the ShoWare Center on Saturday, it was likely to be Davis and White, a pair that has finished first or second at every competition they entered in the past three seasons. Among those 20 medals are gold from both the 2011 and 2010 Skate America.
Davis and White started off their quest for a third straight Skate America title by winning the short dance with 71.39 points.
“Charlie and I feel good about our short dance,” Davis said. “I think as athletes and performers, we’re never completely thrilled with any performance but I think this was a really great start for us that we’re particularly excited about and we’re thrilled to evolve over the season.”
The required pattern dance in this season’s short dance is the Yankee Polka, with Polka, March or Waltz rhythms. While some teams struggle with the Yankee Polka, Davis and White use it to their advantage.
“Meryl and I were lucky enough to compete the last time it was the compulsory dance,” White said. “It was always one of our strength of ours because we have quick feet. That’s a big part of it. You have to be comfortable with the timing and then layering on top of that, so it’s important to have the basics. As far as the amount of time we spend on it, it’s a large part of the score so we focus on the edges even though it goes by quickly. There is a concentration on how to do it correctly.”
Another American ice dance couple, Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmitt, strived to make its short dance fun this season.
“With the Polka, it’s difficult to find something Polka-esque and to skate to,” Kriengkrairut said. “So we’re trying to get away from that type of marching feel, so we found Johnny Cash and really liked it and thought it was perfect, and then we had the option of mixing it with the waltz so Elvis Presley went really well because Chris Isaak covered both songs so it meshed together really well.”
Their short dance is to “Ring of Fire” (originally sung by Cash) and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (Presley). The pair is in fourth place after the short dance, with Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje in second, and Russians Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev.
Kriengkrairut and Giulietti-Schmitt are hoping to move into medal position with Sunday’s free dance, especially with their final lift.
“It’s a choreographical lift, so I jump and Logan catches me and he spins on one foot,” Kriengkrairut said.
“It’s a great way to end the program, very difficult element and we pride ourselves on being unique with lifts so this is definitely taking it a step further,” Giulietti-Schmitt said.