KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Ashley Wagner came to the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships with her heart set on a fourth national title. And with a world silver medal and Skate America gold in the past year, she was favored to lead the field.
Apparently Karen Chen and Mirai Nagasu had plans of their own.
In a night full of surprises, 17-year-old Karen Chen emerged as the leader after the women’s short program on Thursday. Skating a program she choreographed herself to “On Golden Pond,” the California native scored a 72.82. Nagasu, a 2010 Olympian, trails by less than a point with 71.95, while 2014 Olympian Wagner is third with a 70.94.
Wagner’s Olympic teammate Gracie Gold is in fifth with a 64.85, but is confident she could reach the podium, having made similar comebacks in the past.
Chen’s score is the highest mark ever earned by a U.S. woman at a national competition, besting the 72.12 earned by Gold at the 2014 U.S. championships.
“I’m surprised and shocked – my body is still trembling,” Chen said at the post-competition press conference, hours after she skated.
This is not the first time Chen has been the surprise story at nationals.
In her senior debut two years ago, the then-15-year-old vaulted from sixth to third with an impressive free skate and landed on the podium behind Wagner and Gold, beating out 2014 Olympian Polina Edmunds. Edmunds went on to compete at the world championships that year because Chen was too young.
Last year, she struggled to produce the same success and finished eighth. She continued to struggle earlier this season as well, suffering from boot problems. Once she found good boots and began to train hard and train smart, everything fell into place at just the right time.
“There was definitely some doubt,” Chen said on whether she could return to the level she was at two years ago. “Everyone has doubt and I certainly do as well, but I just kept telling myself that I’m gaining more experience, I’m learning about everything in the process and I’m just going to keep getting better.”
As the teenaged Chen, perhaps the future of U.S. Figure Skating, sat in the center at Thursday night’s press conference, it was hard not to notice the juxtaposition to those sitting on either side of her: Olympians Nagasu and Wagner, both competing at their 10th U.S. championships as seniors and nearing the end of their third Olympic cycle.
“They’re my role models. I’ve watched them skate for years and years,” said Chen, who was 10 when Nagasu competed in Vancouver and 14 when Wagner competed in Sochi. “It’s kind of amazing I’m sitting here with them.”
“You just made us feel SO old!” Wagner interjected.
“Sorry,” Chen replied.
Nagasu, 23, and Wagner, 25, have managed to stay competitive and relevant far longer than most female figure skaters do and, for years now, have received questions about their age and remaining in the sport for so long.
But neither skater views themselves that way.
“Well I just want to point out I'm (only) in my early 20s,” Nagasu noted. “I’m definitely glad to be out of my teenage years, those were awkward and lot of growing up in the public eye. It was hard at times. … I think my best years are yet to come. I think I still have a lot in me.
“I do get that comment that I'm a veteran a lot but I feel like I'm a really young skater. I feel like I'm a young butterfly still learning new things. I'm working on new things all the time like my triple axel and ramping up my program to include that triple-triple and I hit it today. That word veteran I'm not sure I really like.”
Wagner, on the other hand, embraces the veteran title.
“I choose to view the word veteran as experienced, and experience is never a bad thing, because I've gone through the good experiences and the brutally, terribly awful experiences,” Wagner said. “I think that this sport focuses on age too much. I'm so sick of hearing about my age, I'm so sick of it, you guys, if anyone asks me one more question about my age I'll just stop talking to them, it's ridiculous.”
One of Wagner’s most brutal experiences came two months ago when she finished sixth at Cup of China – her lowest grand prix finish in her 25 competitions.
She rebounded from that performance exactly the way she wanted to in Kansas City, with a nearly clean short program where it mattered most.
Though she under rotated her double axel due to “sticky ice,” Wagner landed her triple flip-triple toe and said her performance put her exactly where she wants to be going into the free skate.
“Because I’m coming off some rough skates from my grand prix season, today was a huge hurdle,” Wagner said. “Skating first (in my group), not having that break was tough, but you know what – I am so proud of that program and I think I’m in a great spot going into long program, just where I like to be.”
Wagner has long found success in the free skate when she has to come from behind after the short. To win her first senior national title in 2012, she pulled herself up from third place. The next month, she moved up from second after the Four Continents short program to win in the long.
At last year’s world championships, Wagner was fourth and seemed out of medal contention until she nailed her free skate and took silver to win the U.S. women’s first world or Olympic medal in 10 years.
It is an achievement that has put an immense amount of pressure on her this season.
“I think that people do not understand how difficult of a position I am in,” she said. “It might seem like I’m on top of the world – or second from being on top of the world – but this is a really tough position to be in. It’s mentally been weighing on my shoulders all season, and to come out and show people I’m a fighter, I’m really proud of that.”
Nagasu, too, showed she’s a fighter. After winning gold at her senior national debut in 2008, she has struggled to be consistent and though she finished in the top three a few more times (2010, ’11, ’14), Nagasu has has also been as low as seventh in 2012 and ’13 and 10th in 2015.
The fourth-place finisher at the 2010 Olympics, Nagasu hoped to return in 2014 when she was third at the U.S. championships, but fourth-place finisher Wagner, who had a more impressive international resume, was selected over her.
That year marked the last time Nagasu was top-three in either the short or the long at a U.S. championships, until Thursday night.
Nagasu, too, was most proud of her triple flip-triple toe, but she two-footed her triple loop.
“Obviously I made mistakes, but overall I think it was a championship ladies program… ” she said, adding, “My flip-toe was like chocolate.”
And just like her fellow Olympian, Nagasu believes she set herself up perfectly for Saturday night and a shot at the podium.
“I’m excited to compete in the long program; you can't win with a short but you can definitely lose with one and so this is exactly where I wanted to be.”