BOSTON – Sochi could be anybody's Games. The U.S. women’s figure skaters proved that during the short program at the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships Thursday night in Boston’s TD Garden.
The list of contenders for the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team were led by Gracie Gold, who debuted a mature new short program to pull far past two-time reigning U.S. champion Ashley Wagner for the lead going into Saturday's free skate.
Wagner, who has been favored to repeat in Boston and contend for a medal in Sochi, finished fourth.
All the while, 15-year-old Polina Edmunds, who placed fourth at the ISU Junior Grand Prix Final in December, came in second Thursday in her senior debut. Mirai Nagasu, who was fourth at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, finished third.
"I think everybody is thinking about making the Olympic team," Edmunds said.
"I know that if I skate two clean programs then there is a very high chance I can make it because I have a high difficulty," she said, adding a moment later, "Anyone that comes to nationals has a shot."
Gold received a standing ovation for her program set to Edvard Grieg's "Piano Concerto." Gold executed her program as planned, scoring a runaway 72.12 points, beating her previous personal best of 69.45 as well as Edmunds' short program score of 66.75 and Nagasu's 65.44. Wagner, who struggled Thursday and turned a triple-triple combination into a triple-double, received a 64.71.
"Going into the long program I feel I'm exactly where I want to be," Wagner said. "I really like being the fighter. I really like going after the top prize — not begin the one that has to fend everybody off."
Four years ago, Wagner finished third at the U.S. championships, just missing the United States' two-spot roster for the 2010 Games. Wagner said she was reminded of her 2010 performance during Thursday night’s short program.
"As soon as I put out the performances I need to to get on that spot in Sochi," she said, "2010 will no longer be relevant."
Wagner and Gold finished fifth and sixth, respectively, at the world championships in London, Ontario, last year to earn a third spot for the U.S. women in Sochi.
At the 2013 U.S. championships, Gold finished second behind Wagner.
When asked about their exchange backstage after the short program, Gold said: "We were talking about dresses and Nike jackets. We were just being girls, having fun."
|Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir compete in the pairs short program during the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at TD Garden on Jan. 9, 2014 in Boston.
Also earning a personal best and finishing several points ahead of their competition was 2013 U.S. pairs champions and Boston-based skaters Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir. The duo recorded a 73.13 Thursday to take the lead going into the free skate.
The pair executed a clean and confident program, skating to a Carlos Santana medley of "Black Magic Woman” and "Smooth." They drew cheers from the hometown crowd throughout their program — most notably for a big throw triple Salchow.
"When we first heard that Boston was the site for 2014 nationals, we were pretty nervous," Castelli said. "We looked at each other like, ‘oh, no.’ It’s such a special and intimate moment between Simon and I.
"Some people have watched us for eight years together, through success and failures, and we just want to make this special. Today was a great day. We thought we came up to the challenge."
"It's really hard skating in front of people you know," said the Russian-born Shnapir, who hopes skate in front of family once more in Sochi.
"It's definitely challenging, but as soon as we hit our spot, as soon as we heard our names called, we thought that weight was all gone and that nervousness was all gone," he said.
2012 U.S. champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, sidelined from last year’s event as Coughlin recovered from hip surgery, finished the short program in fourth place.
Denney struggled at times thorough the program. The 2010 Olympian doubled on a side-by-side triple toe loop and touched down on a throw triple flip.
"I wish today would have gone a lot better,” Denney said. “Right now all we can do for ourselves is really just move on and put all of our energy into Saturday’s performance and just be fighters. That’s all we can do is fight and try to do the best that we possibly can together.”
Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay finished second and landed a new personal best with a score of 66.50, just ahead of DeeDee Leng and Timothy LeDuc, who rounded the top three with 66.40.
The pairs and ladies competitions conclude Saturday with the free skate. Three women and two pairs teams will be nominated to the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team Sunday, pending approval by the United States Olympic Committee.