GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Ashley Wagner was on a mission to shut people up.
She set out to quiet all the naysayers who thought her spot on the 2014 Olympic Team was undeserved, who thought she was incapable of putting together consistent performances and who thought she was too old to be a top figure skater.
Well, she shut them up by earning the highest score ever recorded by a woman at a U.S. championships to produce her third national title at the 2015 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
The score of 221.02 blew her previous personal best out of the water by almost 27 points.
“This, of my three titles, this one tastes the sweetest,” Wagner said proudly, with a quiver in her voice. “This is the one that means the most to me because this is the one that shows every single person that doubts me, every single person that says I’m too old, every single person that says I am not capable of being a leading lady.
“This shows them that they need to shut their mouths and watch me skate.”
Wagner pulled out two stellar performances despite saying “I’m terrified,” to her coach, Rafael Arutunian, as she took to the ice for her free skate Saturday night.
“I knew right off the bat that this is an intensely fierce competition, and it’s scary when you’re standing on the boards, the door’s shut and that’s it,” the 23-year-old said. “This is the choice you’ve made. You’re skating.”
Also skating — and medaling — were rival Gracie Gold, the defending national champion who scored 205.54 points, and surprise third-place finisher Karen Chen, whose 199.79 bested pewter medalist and 2014 Olympian Polina Edmunds.
Gold, 19, had flaws in both her short program and free skate in Greensboro, North Carolina, a few which she said called “fatal.”
Skating after Wagner, she was distracted by the overwhelming reaction from the crowd of roughly 11,000 fans.
“It brought me back to Sochi when I skated after Adelina Sotnikova, who won,” said Gold, who still finished fourth at her Olympic debut in 2014. “It was hard, I was nervous for this competition.”
Regardless of who came out on top, one thing is for sure: This week’s competition solidified a new rivalry in U.S. figure skating. And it is one that fans have been craving for many years, and that both athletes are excited about.
Gold and Wagner have been rivals since Gold made her senior debut in the 2012-13 season, when Wagner won the U.S. championships and Gold finished second. At the world championships, Wagner finished fifth and Gold was sixth.
Last season, it was Gold’s time to shine. She won the national title while Wagner finished fourth (and, due to her international achievements, was selected for the Olympic team over third-place finisher Mirai Nagasu). In Sochi, Gold placed three spots higher than Wagner, and at worlds, Gold was fifth and Wagner seventh.
“I think that this is something that is so good for figure skating,” Wagner said. “This is a sport that’s based on the drama, and to have a rivalry like Gracie and I have, I think it’s incredible.
“But also it’s nice because I’ve seen some rivalries where it’s nasty and people are mean to each other and I really respect Gracie as an athlete and I think that we’re polar opposites on the ice but off the ice we’re just two people that have known each other for a couple years.”
Gold agreed, saying, “I think that it’s really close to what’s happening in Russia right now with Elena (Radionova) and Elizaveta (Tuktamysheva). Depending on the competition one’s on top, then the other one is. So, looking back at competitions we’ve been at each other’s throats just raising the bar… and we’ve just been pushing each other, and I think our programs are showing that and our skating’s being better and better.
“A quote that I read online somewhere was, ‘Those that slay together stay together,’ and as we slay the competition we will be the friendliest U.S. rivals, but it makes for great TV.”
Chen, who was the dark horse on the podium, made her senior nationals debut in Greensboro. The 15-year-old had made medaling a goal, but was unsure just how realistic that was after breaking her ankle last season, which caused her to withdraw from the Junior Grand Prix Final and the U.S. junior championships.
“I’ve been struggling a little bit with my confidence and believing in myself, and I feel like a few months ago I finally felt like I can stand my ground and I can finally believe in myself and just go do what I can do,” Chen said.
Chen’s performance was so strong — and surprising — that her name was trending on Twitter during the live NBC broadcast. Chen, who is not yet on Twitter, said she found that “very fascinating” and compared the entire experience to “being up in the clouds.”
Because she is only 15 and does not turn 16 until Aug. 16, the 4-foot-10 gymnast is not age eligible to be named to the world championship team this year, and Edmunds will likely be selected for the three-woman team instead.
“I may not be mentally ready anyway, so maybe next year when I’m fully prepared and all grown up,” Chen said. “And taller.”