Two of the biggest names at this week’s 2016 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships — Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner — have combined to win the last four women’s national titles, and there’s no question they’ll be the front-runners tangling for gold at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Wagner has been skating at the senior level since the 2007-08 season, and Gold since the 2011-12 season, and they have finished within two spots of each other at each of the last three world championships.
Nationals will serve as the final qualification event for the 2016 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Boston. No U.S. women’s singles skater has made an Olympic or world podium since 2006, the longest drought since World War I.
Wagner and Gold will skate in the women’s short program at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday and the free skate at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday, the latter of which will be televised live on NBC.
Here’s a closer look at the two skaters:
Having taken the national titles in 2012, 2013 and 2015, Wagner is looking to become just the third women’s figure skater in the last 40 years to win at least four U.S. titles.
If she were to win, the 24-year-old from Los Angeles would join an elite group that includes Linda Fratianne and Michelle Kwan, and she would also become the oldest U.S. women’s figure skating national champion in 79 years.
Unlike most skaters, Wagner spins and jumps clockwise, and she’s kept some of the same elements and tricks in her long program from last season in order to perfect her triple-triple combinations, endurance and transitions.
This season, dancing to “Hip Hip Chin Chin” by Club des Belugas in her short program and the “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack in her free skate, Wagner won gold at Skate Canada in November and then placed fourth at the NHK Trophy in December. That qualified her for the 2015-16 Grand Prix Final, where she finished fourth overall thanks to her personal-best 139.77 score in the free skate, the highest international free program score ever recorded by an American woman.
Having been raised a military brat who moved nine times growing up, Wagner’s used to pushing for the podium wherever she is living at the time. That rings true this season, as she’s moved out to train in the high altitude and at the home of U.S. Figure Skating in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Right now, for the current U.S. title-holder, it’s all about skating consistently and establishing momentum as a medal contender for the next world championships and Olympic Winter Games.
Wagner finished seventh at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games and thus far has finished no higher than fourth place at a world championships.
Now back in Saint Paul, where she took bronze at her first U.S. nationals in 2008, she’s showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Although she’s four years younger than Wagner, Gold proved she, too, is at the top to stay two years ago when she won the U.S. title, and then finished ahead of Wagner in Sochi.
Last season, while still recovering from a stress fracture in her left foot and having just 18 days to train, Gold managed to finish second at nationals. The valiant skater came back to better Wagner at the world championships by 3.95 points two months later, finishing fourth.
Gold’s short program this season is to the tune of “El Choclo” by Angel Villoldo, while her free skate is set to selections from “The Firebird,” a ballet by Igor Stravinsky.
Coached by Frank Carroll, who previously led Fratianne and Kwan to world titles, Gold’s title hopes in Saint Paul could come down to whether she can land her triples rather than doubling out. That’s been the story of her season so far.
She kicked off the season nicely, taking silver at October’s Skate America behind Russia’s Evgenia Medvedeva. She then won the short program at November’s Trophee Eric Bompard in France with a personal-best score of 73.32, but the free skate was canceled due to the Paris terrorist attacks. Her short program score would serve as a final placement, though, qualifying her for the 2015-16 Grand Prix Final, where she finished fifth overall.
Gold, who became America’s “it girl” leading up to the Sochi 2014 Games and has an evolving friendship with Taylor Swift, will have close family support with her in Saint Paul this week.
Her fraternal twin sister, Carly, is also a competitive figure skater and will be making her national championships debut. The 20-year-old twins are best friends and each other’s biggest supporters, as they share a bedroom two blocks from the ocean in Redondo Beach, California.
It will be the first time since Alissa and Amber Czisny, also twins, skated in 2003 that two siblings will compete against each other at the event.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.