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Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Mix of old and new at figure skating nationals

By Melissa Isaacson

Defending pairs champions John Coughlin and Caydee Denney are out. Anyone hoping to see Olympians Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek may be disappointed.

But the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Omaha, Neb., could turn out to be the unofficial unveiling of teenager Gracie Gold. And with Coughlin and Denney sidelined by injury, Boston's Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir are favored to go from fifth place at nationals the past two years to the top spot on the podium.

The U.S. will send its top two men's and ladies singles finishers at nationals to the world championships in London, Ontario, Canada, March 11-17. It is the fifth year for the ladies and the third for the U.S. men in which they will qualify two and not three skaters.

Once at worlds, it will require a combined placement of 13 or better (for example, a fourth- and ninth-place finish) by the top two Americans to guarantee three spots at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

"The U.S. ladies definitely need to get that third spot back," said defending ladies singles champion Ashley Wagner, whose third-place finish at the 2010 nationals kept her from worlds and a shot at the Olympic team.

Here are five things to watch:

Is Wagner a sure thing for the women's gold medal?

If you haven't heard of Wagner before, you certainly will now in the year before the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. The 21-year-old from Alexandria, Va., is attempting to become the first repeat U.S. champion since Michelle Kwan won her eighth straight title in 2005.

"It's definitely an exciting position to be in and a first for me," Wagner said. "I think I have had a great season so far and I really just want to continue building on that. I'm very competitive, especially after this season. I'm hungry for the gold and want to defend my title, but it's definitely going to be challenging because the U.S. has an amazing group of ladies. But I'm going to see what I can do."

Wagner said she feels "much better" after a silver-medal performance behind Mao Asada at the Grand Prix Final in Sochi last month in which she had a bad fall on the second jump of a triple loop-double axel sequence in her "Samson and Delilah" free skate.

"I was diagnosed with a hip pointer [but] I kind of tweaked everything," Wagner said. "When I fell, the first thing to hit the ice was my right foot, and that got tweaked. That went one way and the rest of my body went the other. I badly bruised my knee and hit my hip. I also tried not to hit my chin, so I ended up throwing out my back. I was a bit of a mess traveling home from the finals. I feel much better now."

Is Gracie Gold, the 17-year-old from Chicago, ready for the big time yet?

Gold, the 2012 U.S. junior champion, will be making her domestic senior-level debut in Omaha, and reaching the podium would be an ideal baptism on the national stage. Her first senior Grand Prix competition was a disappointment as she finished seventh out of 10 competitors at Skate Canada in October, but she bounced back for her first senior Grand Prix medal, coming in second overall in Moscow in November.

"I didn't have my best skates in Canada," Gold said. "I was disappointed with how I skated and I was disappointed I sort of let my nerves and the atmosphere get to my head and I didn't focus on my skating and didn't skate well as I could have. But I took that disappointment and channeled it into my training, and I came much better prepared mentally and physically to Russia."

Known for her outstanding athletic ability, Gold admits grabbing that second slot to worlds is in her sights.

"I do have to stay in the moment, and right now the next competition is nationals and I'm looking forward to two clean, strong skates," she said. "Of course I'd love to represent us at worlds and that would be a huge step in my skating, especially the year before the Olympics, and it would be very exciting if I did it. But right now I'm looking forward to skating strong at nationals."

If not Gracie, who else?

Agnes Zawadzki, the bronze medalist at nationals last year, is one possibility. Mirai Nagasu and Christina Gao are in the hunt. Alissa Czisny, the 2009 and 2011 national champion who finished second last year, was to compete for the first time since left hip surgery in June, but she dislocated the same hip while landing a triple flip at a tuneup competition in Appleton, Wis., on Jan. 12.

Czisny had a terrible time at last year's worlds, falling multiple times and finishing 22nd before doctors found she had been competing with an undiagnosed hip injury. Czisny's coach, Jason Dungjen, told that the hip was realigned without surgery and that a CAT scan "didn't show anything major."

With Weir and Lysacek all but out of competitive skating the past two years, who stands out in the men's competition?

Weir, a two-time Olympian and three-time U.S. champion, pulled out of Omaha in December citing a lack of preparation due to injury. And Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic gold medalist, '09 world champion and two-time U.S. champion, had hernia surgery in mid-November and is not ready to perform. Three-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott is now the headliner, and two-time U.S. bronze medalist Ross Miner is right behind. Also in the mix are Adam Rippon and Richard Dornbush.

"Four national titles would be incredible &" said Abbott, 27, plagued by recurring back problems last year. "I've learned a lot about myself over the last few years. I always thought I'm not a good competitor and always let fear get the best of me. But working with my sports psychologist the last few years, I've learned I really am a strong competitor & I do have drive and that fire. Also, I've kind of learned to trust my instincts and listen to myself a little bit more because I have a tendency second-guess myself."

Abbott, who finished fourth at the 2011 U.S. Championships, said he will play it safe and leave the quadruple jump out of his short program. "The most important thing is to skate two solid programs and make the world team," he said. "Then I can put a bigger push on the quad."

Four-time national champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White take all the suspense out of ice dancing, but who will win pairs?

It's anyone's guess. Coughlin's hip surgery last month has sidelined defending U.S. champions Coughlin and Denney. And last year's U.S. runners-up Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker have split, as well as bronze medalists Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, so there will be a fifth U.S. pairs champion in as many years.

Castelli and Shnapir, who placed fifth the past two years, are looking to break through and are considered the favorites. And in ice dancing, look for two-time U.S. silver medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani to be on the podium.