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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Bowling Green native Alissa Czisny wasn't at her finest on Thursday night, but she was good enough to put herself in position to win her third U.S. Figure Skating Championship on Saturday night.
Agnes Zawadzki was the unexpected star of the show in the women's short program.
The U.S. junior champ only two years ago, Zawadzki outskated not one, not two, but three former winners Thursday night to claim the short program. One of the few women to skate cleanly, her sultry routine to a blues medley earned her 66.24 points and put her three points ahead of defending champion Czisny going into the free skate Saturday. Ashley Wagner was third.
Mirai Nagasu, the 2008 U.S. champ, was fifth after botching her opening jump. Rachael Flatt, the 2010 winner, was way down in ninth after a lackluster performance in front of an enthusiastic hometown crowd.
"I'm really excited," Zawadzki said, still grinning 15 minutes after she got off the ice. "Everything's finally clicked."
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The U.S. women have been stuck in a rut since Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen hung up their skates. They've gone five years without a medal at the world championships, came up empty at the Vancouver Olympics, and will have only two spots at worlds for a fourth year in a row. Czisny, Flatt, and Nagasu have all tried -- and failed.
All Zawadzki wants is a chance.
"I'd put her talent up against anybody," coach David Santee said about Zawadzki. "I think it was just a matter of time until it was going to come out."
Zawadzki has medals from the last two junior world championships. But skating stopped being fun last season, and she was so unhappy over the summer that she seriously considered quitting.
"I wasn't really enjoying skating," she said. "But I wanted to try something before I stopped."
A senior in high school, Zawadzki didn't want to leave Colorado Springs, Colo., where she'd spent the last several years training with Tom Zakrajsek. She began working with another coach at the rink, Christy Krall, who also coaches world champion Patrick Chan, and then called Santee, her old coach in her native Chicago, and asked if he'd help train her too.
"I hung up and thought, 'How's this going to work?' " Santee said. "But it's worked out great."
Santee likened the arrangement to "a corporation," with Krall as the chief operating officer in charge of day-to-day training and Santee the chief executive officer. He's traveled to Colorado three times since he resumed working with Zawadzki, and she's come back to Chicago once to work with him.
Though Zawadzki had a rough Grand Prix season, she and her coaches knew she was on the verge of doing something big. Where better than at the U.S. championships?
Her program to a blues medley was so captivating you could almost see the thick fog of smoke hanging over the bar and hear the clink of bottles. She opened with a monstrous triple toe loop-triple toe combination -- one of only a handful of women to even try a triple-triple combo -- that seemed to last for ages yet didn't take a second off her speed. Her triple lutz was explosive, and her double axel done with ease.
The crowd was on its feet before she finished her final spin, and Zawadzki grinned and clapped before she buried her face in her hands.
"Not at all," Santee said when asked if he was surprised by Zawadzki's performance. "Because we know what she's capable of doing. We said all along she came in to win."
If she skates like this again Saturday, the rest of the favorites can't afford to make the errors they did Thursday night.
Czisny, a Bowling Green State University graduate, had no trouble with her triple lutz-double toe combination or her triple loop. But she botched the double axel, the easiest jump in her program, drawing a gasp from the arena.
"I hesitated just a little bit going into the jump, and that usually doesn't work," she said.
But Czisny is one of the most elegant and beautiful skaters around, and her component scores were strong enough to hold her up.
"Considering [the double axel] is worth the least amount of points, it's probably the best one to miss if you're going to miss one. Which I'd prefer not to," Czisny said.
Nagasu stumbled out of the landing of her triple loop -- she did manage to do it in time to the music, at least -- and she lost whatever spark she had. Oh, her spins were gorgeous as always, the combination spin centered as perfectly as if she'd used a protractor. But it was like watching a movie in black-and-white instead of in HD.
"I'd say it was disappointing," coach Frank Carroll said. "When the loop was not good, the spark was gone so the program looked flat."
Davis-White in control
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Meryl Davis and Charlie White are on a different level than their American competitors.
Heck, they're lapping the rest of the world too.
The first Americans to win a world title in ice dance took a comfortable lead at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Friday, and their score of 76.89 in the short dance is sure to get the world's attention. Not only was it four-plus points ahead of Maia and Alex Shibutani, last year's U.S. runners-up and the surprise bronze medalists at the world championships, but it's well ahead of what the best of the rest has been able to do too.
Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the closest thing Davis and White have to competition, scored 68.41 at the Canadian championships this month. The top teams at this week's European championships struggled just to crack 65 points.
Davis and White have been unbeatable since finishing behind Virtue and Moir at the 2010 world championships. In addition to their historic title last spring, they edged the Canadians again last month in the Grand Prix finals.