By Brandon Penny | Oct. 22, 2016, 7:54 p.m. (ET)
(L-R) Mariah Bell, Ashley Wagner and Mai Mihara of Japan pose on the podium at 2016 Progressive Skate America on Oct. 22, 2016 in Hoffman Estates, Ill.


HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. -- Ashley Wagner and Mariah Bell could not be on more opposite sides of the skating spectrum, but both had something to prove during the ladies’ free skate Saturday afternoon at Skate America.

Wagner, still fresh off her historic silver-medal performance at last season’s world championships, was in the lead after the short program and was eager to show she could remain on top and win the event.

Bell, sitting in sixth after the short program, was hoping to show what she is capable of and that Friday’s performance was a fluke.

Mission accomplished, times two.

With only a few minor flaws in her free skate, Wagner earned a score of 126.94 for a total of 196.44. Bell skated lights out and won the free skate with 130.67, bringing her up to second place with a total of 191.59. Japan’s Mai Mihara ended the competition in third with 189.28.

“I’m very, very proud of my performance today,” Bell said. “My goal this season has just been to continue to improve on my personal best. I haven’t really been thinking too much about results or placements, but being on the podium is very exciting.”

Lately, Bell and Wagner are sharing much more than a podium at Skate America.

Bell changed training locations and coaches two months ago. She now skates alongside Wagner and they share a coach, Rafael Arutunian.

It is a move that has helped Bell immensely.

“Ashley has a really incredible work ethic and she comes to the rink every day very motivated,” Bell said. “I’m excited that I have the opportunity to learn from Ashley and Adam (Rippon).”

There’s a lot Bell can learn from Wagner. Five years her training mate’s senior, Wagner was competing at her 24th grand prix event and claimed her 16th medal and fifth gold.

For veteran Wagner, Skate America was a lesson in dealing with nerves and still emerging the victor. 

“I came into today with a new set of nerves that took some work to handle and I handled them as gracefully as I could today, so I’m happy with what I did,” Wagner said.

She noted that her short program displayed the tough, fierce skater she desires to be this season.

“I am so proud of that,” she said of Friday’s performance. “The long program, you know, it would be amazing to have great long programs every single time. But sometimes you have programs like that, where they’re not bad but they keep you in check with where you are and what you need to work on so I think the way that I have trained this summer definitely got me through that program.”

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But it was Bell who stole the show Saturday.

Since her coaching change, Bell has earned her first senior-level medal, taking silver at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in September. She followed that up with bronze two weeks later at her second Challenger Series event, the Ondreja Nepela Memorial.

Reaching the podium at Skate America was yet another major accomplishment for the 20-year-old. In only the second grand prix of her career – last year’s Skate America, where she finished eighth, marked her first – Bell overshadowed world and Olympic medalists to earn personal best marks in all three categories.

Furthering her underdog story, Bell was not even slated to compete at Skate America – or on the grand prix circuit at all this season – until 11 days ago, when it was announced she would replace the injured Angela Wang.

When asked if she would be interested in receiving a second grand prix assignment, Bell exclaimed, “definitely! That would be awesome.”

Until then, Bell said she is focused on continuing to build her confidence and prepare for U.S. championships in January, where she plans to be on the podium and qualify for the world championships team.

Gracie Gold, who was third after the short program, had what she called an “unfortunate” free skate worth 119.35. She finished fifth with a total of 184.22.

“The score was overly generous, but I appreciate what I was able to pull out,” Gold said. “Obviously I just need to go back to the drawing board. The long program isn’t what it needs to be at this point in the season or with the rest of the competitors, but I guess the only thing left to do is to continue training. We just need to adjust my physical shape and mental shape, and see if the program can be salvaged for the rest of the year.”