Ashley Wagner breaks through
SAN JOSE -- Michelle Kwan was at HP Pavilion in San Jose Saturday night to accept the honor as the only inductee to the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame for 2012.
A video retrospective reminded the near-full house what a charismatic figure she was on and off the ice.
At a Friday news conference, Kwan was gracious and charming and openly sentimental about one of the most accomplished careers in the history of the sport -- or any sport, really.
In every way, she was a reminder.
A reminder that there is no current American ice princess, that the ladies ranks in the U.S. are littered with seemingly talented skaters who also seem to come and go, and sometimes come back again.
But staying power? That's another matter entirely.
Kwan won nine U.S titles, five World titles and two Olympic medals. She is a name and a face for a sport still waiting and wanting for another.
Fans of American figure skating would take someone who could come even close.
Ashley Wagner won her first U.S. championship Saturday night with a mostly clean, lovely skate to the soundtrack from the movie "Black Swan." Despite popping out of a salchow, Wagner, who has taken to calling herself "the almost girl," avoided a major mistake.
"I'm not the almost girl anymore," Wagner said. "And I can't even describe how happy I am about that."
The three-time U.S. bronze medalist finished 8.02 points ahead of two-time U.S. champion Alissa Czisny, who had a pair of stumbles in her free skate to lose a chance at defending her 2011 title.
Agnes Zawadzki, who was the leader after the short program, fell to third after a difficult free skate in which she fell twice and nearly ran into the wall two other times.
"I was really nervous going out there because I felt like it was getting to the point where I wanted it so bad," said Wagner, the 20-year-old from Alexandria, Va., who moved to Aliso Viejo, Calif., last June to train with coach John Nicks. "I'm in shock. It hasn't hit me yet. I'm so happy that I made the right decision (to move and change coaches). This is confirmation that I made the right decision."
Despite Wagner's breakthrough, it's difficult to look any of any of Saturday's medalists and project upon them Olympic success in Sochi in 2014 because none of them are proven entities on the world stage.
Czisny, at 24, with two U.S. titles under her belt, could have seized momentum, but stumbled. She has never finished higher than fifth at Worlds. Wagner finished 16th at the World Championships in 2008.
None of the three former U.S. Champions who skated in San Jose this weekend -- Czisny, Mirai Nagasu and Rachael Flatt -- have been able to push on to the medal stand at Worlds. It has been five years since an American woman medaled in the World Championships.
"I think that's it is time that the U.S. makes a claim in women's figure skating," Wagner said. "We have the talent here, we have the skaters and we just need to be about to go out there and put out consistent programs. We need to do triple-triples and show the world that ladies figures skating in the United States is not over."
Czisny was visibly disappointed in her performance. Yet she will return to the Worlds.
"Besides the lutzes, it was OK," Czisny said. "It wasn't my best tonight, but I kept fighting out there. I'm disappointed with the way I skated, but I'm happy I kept fighting. ... It's never easy to defend a title. My goal was to come here and win."
In reality, the U.S. team's best hope for 2014 might be a skater who didn't compete in Saturday's free skate, but instead won the junior girls title a few days ago.
Gracie Gold, 16, posted the highest score ever by a junior skater at the U.S. Championships.
Gold's poise and her precision jumping has wowed the skating community, so much so that U.S. Figure Skating president Pat St. Peter conceded Thursday that it's possible Gold could end up on the Four Continents team -- which will be comprised of three skaters (not headed to Worlds) picked by U.S. Figure Skating. They will head to Colorado Springs for the early-February international event.
"Her name will be among those considered because of what she has accomplished this season," St. Peter said.
U.S. Figure Skating would like to begin her grooming process as soon as possible. And she's got a name tailor-made for headlines.
With tears in her eyes Saturday night, Kwan said in her closing remarks to the crowd:
"To all skaters who come after, you have a big responsibility to pass along the tradition."
Wagner admitted she feels that responsibility already, even in her first hour as the national champion.
"Michelle is such an inspiration. People feel like they know Michelle. And that's been something that's been missing from U.S. skating," Wagner said. "We haven't been the most consistent skaters. The audience came to rely on Michelle and we need to work on getting back to that."