ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The story was set: Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner would headline the show.
Then Polina Edmunds upstaged them both.
Competing just before the would-be-headliners, Edmunds had one of the few clean performances Thursday night at the 2016 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Champions and leads the field with 70.19 points after the short program.
Gold, the 2014 U.S. champion, was second with 62.50 points, just 0.05 ahead of third-place Tyler Pierce. And just behind them was Wagner, the 2012, ’13 and ’15 U.S. champ, at 62.41.
The winner will be determined after the free skate on Saturday night when the championships continue at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Skating to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” Edmunds, 17, had one of the night’s cleanest programs, landed all of her jumps and was graceful in her spins. That alone might have been enough in a night filled with falls, but Edmunds didn’t win by default: Only three women’s short programs in U.S. championships history have scored higher.
“I just really wanted to feel comfortable on the ice and show the judges how beautiful this program is,” she said.
Now in her third season as a senior, Edmunds has one U.S. medal, a silver in 2014, but she’s competed at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games and had eighth-place finishes at the 2014 and 2015 world championships.
Still, she came in without the expectations of her Olympic teammates.
“There’s always pre-competition hype and buzz, and I don’t really pay attention to it,” Edmunds said. “Of course I’ve never had a chance to be in this position before, so I’m really excited and happy that I’m finally here. But really, I know that it comes down to who skates the best on the ice, and I’m glad what I put down today was my best and that I was rewarded for it.”
There’s still plenty of opportunity for Gold and Wagner to come back, but this was hardly the start the 2014 Olympic teammates were looking for.
The 24-year-old Wagner, coming off the highest free skate score by a U.S. woman in an international competition at least month’s ISU Grand Prix Final, skated third to last and promptly tripped up and fell on a triple flip-triple toe combination. Although she regained momentum toward the end, it wasn’t enough.
Gold was up next, and she began by with a buzzkill, too, downgrading a triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination into a single Lutz. When she tried to put a combination later in the program, it became a triple-double.
“I really did put a lot of work into this event, obviously, not just because it’s nationals but also for myself,” she said. “That’s why I was really upset with the mistake, because I was just so ready, and there was no reason for there to be a mistake. I just wasn’t present; a little loss of concentration cost me a lot of points.”
Three U.S. women will compete at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships, which begin in March in Boston. Edmunds, Gold and Wagner — the 2014 U.S. Olympic women’s team — will be the favorites to claim those spots, but after a sloppy Thursday night of short programs, other skaters could be in the mix after Saturday.
Pierce had the surprise performance Thursday. Competing in her second U.S. championships as a senior, the 17-year-old had a triple toe-triple toe combination, a double Axel and a triple toe loop in her program.
“I tried to focus on the whole package and not just an all jump program,” she said. “One with good choreography, spins, and footwork also for a complete program.”
Mirai Nagasu, a 2010 Olympian, is in fifth with a score of 59.64.
The 22-year-old has had an up-and-down career since winning her first and only national title in this building in her 2008 senior debut. Since then she’s finished as high as second (2010) and as low as 10th (2015) at nationals; she’s competed at one Olympic Winter Games (2010) and was passed over for a second (2014), even though she was third at that year’s national championships.
Even on Thursday, Nagasu had to complete her program with a torn boot.
That history has drawn a sympathetic audience among skating fans.
Skating just before the intermission in the opening half of the competition, Nagasu was the first skater to draw the full attention of the Xcel Energy Center crowd, bringing out oohs and ahhs after her jumps and a standing ovation after an elegant layback spin to end her routine, which was set to a quiet version of “Demons,” the Imagine Dragons song, covered by Sam Tsui.
“Life is never to be expected, it’s full of surprises like today,” she said. “That’s what keeps me ice skating.”
Courtney Hicks, seen by many as a medal contender, had a rough short program with two falls and was 11th.
It was a familiar story for Karen Chen, last year’s U.S. bronze medalist, who fell twice in her short program, ending in 12th.