With three berths on the U.S. Olympic ladies figure skating team as the prize, 21 skaters return to the ice Saturday for the critical free skate portion of the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Looking to build upon solid short-program efforts or rebound from disappointing ones, a trio of women skaters will all but punch their tickets to the Sochi Games with medal-earning performances as the ladies' side of the national championships come to a close at the TD Garden in Boston.
Gracie Gold is the solid leader after a near-flawless performance in Thursday’s short program, but there are several skaters chasing her for both the prestigious gold medal and the opportunity to represent their country in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Russia.
As we saw on Thursday, there promises to be plenty of surprises, drama, intrigue and, unfortunately, disappointment as the free skate competition plays out.
Here’s a look at who to watch, what to expect and even a prediction on who will ultimately wear the red, white and blue at the Sochi Games.
The Free Skate Competition
The second half of the national championships, the free skate program is the longer of the competitions and requires more technical moves by the contestants. It weighs equally to that of the short program in the championships' final results.
The 21 women competing in Saturday’s free skate will produce a four-minute performance with judging based on the technical elements and composition of the program minus any deductions for errors. The gold, silver, bronze and pewter medals will be awarded to the top-four skaters, respectively, following the conclusion of the free skate program.
The gold and silver medalists are virtually guaranteed a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. The third woman to make the team will likely be the bronze medalist, although U.S. Figure Skating could make the decision to name the pewter winner to the team if circumstances warrant.
More than likely, however, the top-three medalists at the end of Saturday’s competition are headed to Sochi.
The Top Six
The top-six skaters from the short program will be the last to skate Saturday night and possess the best opportunity to make the U.S. team heading to Russia next month.
The reality is skaters can’t win a medal in the short program at the national championships but certainly can lose it, and those outside the final six contestants have some serious work to do if the Olympics are in their futures.
That said, sitting three or four spots outside the best half-dozen after the short program doesn't necessarily spell doom. Last year, Gold finished a disappointing short program in ninth place but rallied all the way to a silver medal with a stirring free skate performance two nights later.
Granted there wasn't an Olympic invitation on the line in the 2013 national championship, but a similar performance could be forthcoming from a woman currently out of sight that would quickly move her to top of mind when the U.S. Olympic ladies figure skating team takes shape Saturday night.
Free Skate Early Groups: 6:45 p.m. ET
Free Skate Late Groups: To follow completion of early groups.
8 to 11 p.m. ET: NBC Television
America’s finest women figure skaters began their quest for a golden ticket to the Sochi Olympics on Thursday night in the short program of the national championships.
There were unexpected performances—both good and bad—and introductions to what looks like the future of women’s figure skating for years to come.
Here are the top-six skaters who will compete last in Saturday's free skate program.
Gracie Gold, 72.12
Gold delivered the performance of the night and, as a result, is in the catbird seat heading into Saturday. Her trip to Sochi now seems close to guaranteed, meaning the 18-year-old is on the verge of international stardom.
Polina Edmunds, 66.75
Polina Edmunds might be the youngest skater in the competition, but she didn’t perform like it on Thursday. The 15-year-old delivered one of the most stirring skates of the short program and, as a result, could be making a very unexpected trip to Russia next month.
Mirai Nagasu, 65.44
The only skater who owns Olympic experience with the chance to make the Sochi Games, Mirai Nagasu laid down a solid skate on Thursday. A gold medal is unlikely, but the three-time national medalist would be a solid addition to the team given her fourth place showing at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Ashley Wagner, 64.71
The two-time defending national champion had a good, but not great, performance on Thursday, and she faces a heap of pressure on Saturday to make her first Olympic team. The Virginia native, who missed the 2010 Olympics by one spot, needs to let it loose on Saturday to secure a trip to Russia.
Ashley Cain, 61.45
If not for Edmunds' performance, Ashley Cain would have been the surprise of the short program. The first to skate on Thursday, Cain was absolutely spectacular in her first-ever performance in the senior division at the national championship.
Christina Goa, 60.91
The hometown girl didn't disappoint the TD Garden crowd, delivering a strong performance that puts her in the running for the Olympic squad. She’ll need to skate with more energy on Saturday, but a rise to third or fourth isn't out of the question for the skater who has finished fifth in each of the past four national championships.
Is There Another “Golden” Performance Coming?
Gold didn't just steal the show with her performance in Thursday’s short program, she absolutely hijacked these national championships. The question now is whether the engaging skater has a repeat performance in her for Saturday’s free skate.
The 18-year-old’s personal best score of 72.12 has certainly separated her from the rest of the field, making Gold a virtual lock to earn a spot on the U.S. Sochi Olympic team barring some unforeseen disaster on the TD Garden ice.
That said, one wonders whether Gold will keep the pedal pressed downward during her free skate program or play it cautious considering her significant lead.
Will Youth Be Served?
Edmunds' short program performance was impressive on its own merits; factor in that the skater is the youngest competitor at these national championships, and it becomes all the more impressive.
With the biggest skate of her young life on the horizon, it’s fair to wonder whether the 15-year-old is truly prepared to deliver another electric performance on Saturday. Doubters will point to the fact that the California native is making her first-ever senior skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Believers, however, need only point to the poise, joy and style that Edmunds put on full display Thursday. In the moments leading up to, during and after the spectacular skate, Edmunds never showed a single sign of nerves, which is truly impressive considering the stage she was on.
With the Olympics nearly in her grasp, the stakes couldn't be greater for the teenager on Saturday, and how she handles the pressure will be one of the most significant stories of the free skate program.
Is Karma on Wagner’s Side?
The two-time defending national champion might not have known it at the time, but her strong performance at the 2013 World Championships might just have been the catalyst to earning Wagner a spot on her first-ever Olympic team.
Following a poor performance at the 2008 World Championships, the United States' qualifying spots for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics were reduced from three to two. As fate would have it, Wagner, who was a part of that disappointing team, finished third in the 2010 national championships and missed making her first Olympics by that lost spot.
As redemption would have it, the skater was a leading force on the U.S. team that performed well enough in 2013 to regain that third spot for the Sochi Olympics.
Sitting in fourth place heading into Saturday’s free skate, Wagner may very well need that recently secured spot to earn the Olympic berth she so covets. Should she indeed become the third woman added to the U.S. Sochi team, it will be a welcomed measure of poetic justice for the popular skater.
The 19-year-old has finished fifth in the past four U.S. Figure Skating Championships and heads into Saturday’s free skate sitting in sixth place with some serious work to do to make her first U.S. Olympic team.
Goa put together a solid short program on Thursday, but she was a little too cautious in places and lacked the energy of the skaters out in front of her heading into Saturday's free skate. While she is more than 11 points behind leader Gold, the Ohio native is only 4.53 points behind Nagasu for that magical bronze position, which could very well carry a spot on the Sochi team with it.
Despite failing to medal in her previous national championships, there’s no doubting the skater’s commitment to making one Olympics before she ultimately hangs up the skates. Goa put her promising college career at Harvard on hold last year to make this one last charge toward Olympic glory and now sees it all come down to one huge opportunity in Saturday’s free skate program.
Given her experience in international competition and proven dedication to U.S. figure skating, Goa would almost certainly be selected for the Sochi team if she were to rally for a bronze or even silver medal on Saturday. She could also be a compelling choice for the committee making the final call on the team if she slides into the pewter spot.
Given her name, style and age, Gold entered the national championships with more hype than even the favorite Wagner did. On Thursday, she not only lived up to the billing and expectations, she flat-out exceeded them.
As a result of her scintillating short program, which garnered a personal-best score of 72.12, the 18-year-old is poised to not only capture her first national championship gold medal but also a trip to the Sochi Olympics as the new face of the U.S. Olympics women's figure skating team.
The Massachusetts native enters Saturday’s decisive free skate program with more than a five-point cushion over second-place Edmunds and nearly a seven-and-half-point margin over Wagner, the two-time defending national champion, who sits in fourth place.
Given the high-pressure nature of the free skate competition, and the quality of the skaters chasing her, there are no guarantees Gold will capture the national championship despite the size of the lead.
Yet based on her Thursday performance, and the fact that she absolutely nailed her free skate in last year’s championships to ultimately secure a silver medal, there’s little reason to doubt Gold will close the deal on Saturday.
In doing so, the teenager will almost certainly become the female star of the U.S. Olympic team heading to Sochi almost overnight.
Expected Total Combined Score: 140.27
Gracie Gold, Gold Medal
Given the way she performed in Thursday’s short program, Gold seemed absolutely destined for the national championship she is on the precipice of winning.
Her elegance and grace on the ice was irresistible, and her Boston performance will ultimately raise the opinion and expectations of the ladies' team that is heading to Sochi next month.
Despite her significant lead heading into the free skate, the 2013 national silver medalist will remain aggressive and ultimately deliver a performance late Saturday evening that will come close to equaling her short program effort.
Ashley Wagner, Silver Medal
There’s no denying Wagner missed a move or two in Thursday’s short program, which cost her several valuable points in the final scoring. She also appeared to recognize the errors immediately after the performance.
Given her experience and positive outlook, the two-time defending national champion will rebound with the free skate performance of the night on Saturday, moving her past the inexperienced Edmunds and former Olympian Nagasu.
Wagner missed out on the 2010 Vancouver team by one painful spot and is determined not to let that happen again in what is likely her last attempt to make the Winter Olympics.
Polina Edmunds, Bronze Medal
An unknown talent before coming to Boston, Edmunds skated like a true veteran on Thursday. That carefree, confident performance was enough to prove that the 15-year-old is a talent beyond her years prepared for the significant pressure of a single free skate performance for an Olympic berth.
Matching the magical short program is too much to ask for the inexperienced Edmunds, but Thursday’s strong showing provided enough room for error to allow the rising star to hold off lurking challengers.
The question that will follow, however, is whether U.S. Figure Skating is ready for a 15-year-old to make an already inexperienced Olympic team, or does it go in a different direction with the final selection.
Mirai Nagasu, Pewter Medal
Nagasu, who finished ninth in the 2010 Vancouver Games, put forth a solid and consistent short program performance on Thursday. That showing, coupled with her vast experience in international competition, promises that the skater isn't going away during Saturday’s pressure-packed free skate.
The 2008 national champion will challenge both Wagner and Edmunds for a spot in the top three but will ultimately fall just short in her efforts to guarantee a spot on the Sochi team.
That said, the critical question following the free skate will be whether Nagasu performed well enough to argue her way onto the team as the only skater with past Olympic experience to support Gold and Wagner in Sochi.
The U.S. Olympic ladies figure skating team we project to head to Sochi next month will lack experience but more than make up for it with intrigue and potential.
High expectations will most certainly not follow the American women to the Games, and not one of the three will be favored to end the team’s gold medal drought that extends back to Sarah Hughes’ triumph in 2002. That said, the potential for great star power and surprising performances is written all over the trio of skaters that will test the world’s best in Russia next month.
Whether it’s unexpected glory or utter disappointment, the one certain is that these U.S. women competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics will be worth the price of admission to watch.
Some might already be over the hype that has surrounded the 18-year-old in the weeks and days leading up to the national championship. But the attention paid to this talented and graceful figure skater isn't going away before the Sochi Games.
Gold stole the show in the short program on Thursday and is a solid bet to back up that performance with another gem in the free skate. When she does that, she’ll not only lead the trio of skaters named to the U.S. Olympic team, she will be the face of it.
For anyone who’s been following ladies figure skating the past several years, Wagner’s inclusion on the team is undoubtedly the feel-good story of the national championships.
The 2012 and 2013 national champion just missed out making the 2010 Vancouver Olympics team, which could only take two ladies to the Games after a poor performance in the 2008 World Championships.
The 22-year-old might not demand the attention Gold will get, but she may ultimately boast the best chance the Americans have to medal when the pressure and bright lights of the Sochi Games fall squarely on the U.S. team in February.
While it’s safe to say few saw this precocious 15-year-old coming, she will have more than earned her spot on the team. The youngest skater in the ladies field, Edmunds was nearly flawless on Thursday night, providing significant hope for the future of American ladies figure skating.
Whether or not the moment and spotlight becomes too big for the California teen when the competition gets underway in Sochi remains to be seen, but if her short program performance is any indication, Edmunds is poised beyond her years.