Update 1/2017: This week will be the 10th US Championships for both Nagasu and Wagner, and the ninth for Zhang (she missed the competition last year).
Update 4/2016: Since this post was first written, Wagner has won a World silver medal in her sixth Worlds appearance, and Nagasu returned to Worlds for the first time since 2010, finishing tenth. She also won the 2016 Four Continents silver during this resurgent season. Zhang, in the meantime, is back training to get back to competition next season.
Eight years ago, excited American skating fans were plotting the post-Kwan/Cohen/Hughes re-takeover of ladies' skating by the U.S. Just six months before, Caroline Zhang, Mirai Nagasu, and Ashley Wagner gave the U.S. its first sweep of the ladies' podium at the 2007 Junior Worlds. And the history since has just not been what you would have expected based on what we saw in their respective potentials in 2007. Here's a sample of what happened since:
- All of them would compete in at least one more Junior Worlds, but none of them won it (Zhang was second twice, Nagasu and Wagner were both third in their one other appearance (2008 and 2009, respectively).
- The first of the three to win a U.S. title was Nagasu (2008).
- The first of the three to make it to the Olympics was Nagasu (2010).
- The only of the three to not make a Worlds or Olympics, so far, is Zhang. Nagasu went to 2010 Olympics and Worlds, Wagner has been to five Worlds.
- Zhang has not won a Grand Prix medal since 2008, Nagasu didn't start winning GP medals until 2010, Wagner has one at least one GP medal each year except 2008.
The domination hasn't materialized. And now, in 2015, it is Wagner who has been the most consistent at the top, winning three of the last four U.S. titles. Nagasu has shown moments of brilliance and has become a sentimental favorite who is overdue for a spectacular season. And Zhang was 19th and 17th at the last two Nationals, taking the season off after hip surgery earlier in the year. This current state of affairs is certainly not what pundits had expected after that podium sweep in 2007. Here's a look at each of the three skaters, their early career highlights, and what has happened since.
To most - including me - Zhang was the skater who looked to be next star. A lot of it was predicated on the fact that she would improve her power and maintain her jumps and consistency. A lot less of it was about her jump technique, which many - also including me - hoped would sort itself out as she matured in power.
And who would have thought that 2006-07 would prove to be the shining season in her career? Zhang went undefeated internationally that junior season, with her sole loss all season being a second to Nagasu at Nationals in the junior event. She would go on to win three medals at Nationals - one bronze ('09) and two pewter ('08, '12) - while racking up five other showings outside the top ten and not making a Worlds or Olympics team. A berth to the Vancouver Olympics looked to be inevitable for Zhang in 2007, but she finished all of 11th at Nationals that year.
Between coaching changes, growth spurts, technique revamps, and motivation issues, Zhang has had a rough time on the senior circuit. But there was a glimmer of hope three years ago when she surprised everyone with a resurgent two competitions at Nationals and Four Continents, where she took bronze. But the past two seasons have been more of the norm, and after undergoing hip surgery in March of this year, she will be taking this season off. Time will tell if she's got another comeback in her.
What we saw from Nagasu in her first couple of junior seasons was what we would eventually see during her first few years in senior competition. The talent is there but the consistency was not. Even though it was Zhang who dominated that 2006-07 junior season, Nagasu had the best all-around potential of the three, especially because she was just a more powerful skater than both Zhang and Wagner were at that time.
Since taking the 2007 Junior World silver, she went on to dominate the junior circuit and win her first, and as yet only, U.S. title the following season. And even though her perfect season ended less perfectly after wonky free skate dropped her to third at 2008 Junior Worlds, people expected Nagasu to be battling with Zhang for years to come.
Nagasu's highlight is still the 2010 Olympic season, where she found consistency again in the second half of the season and finished a very promising fourth in Vancouver. She even won the short program at Worlds a month after. But the five seasons since have again been up and down, with perhaps her biggest upper becoming her biggest downer when she finished third at 2014 Nationals but was not chosen for the Sochi team.
Not unlike Zhang, Nagasu has had her coaching changes. She finally seems settled and motivated again with Tom Zakrasjek, technically stronger than she's ever been and working on the triple axel again.
In all honesty, Wagner was really not on anyone's radar (at least not their main radar) when it looked like it was going to be Zhang-Nagasu repeating the days of Kwan-Lipinski. And for a while, that was exactly what happened. Due to her being a couple years older than the other two, Wagner was the first to make a Worlds team (2008) after taking bronze at the Nationals that Nagasu won. She then went on to look like she was hitting her ceiling with a 4th and a 3rd at Nationals, missing a Vancouver berth by just four points.
What happened after her 6th-place showing at 2011 Nationals was completely unexpected to most. A coaching change and a new found musicality pushed her to win three of the next four U.S. titles, three top five finishes at Worlds, and an Olympic berth at the expense of Nagasu in that much-talked-about decision. Coming in as the two-time and reigning National champ, Wagner went off the rails at 2014 Nationals and finished fourth. But because of her much stronger recent history of international competition finishes relative to that of Nagasu, Wagner was chosen for the team.
And while she seemed to have peaked during those three years, she found another gear, this time in her technical repertoire, last season and proved that she had the firepower to compete with the best internationally. Her free skate at Nationals last year was a career highlight, and she comes into this season, once again, as the leading lady in the U.S.
Where do you think Caroline Zhang, Mirai Nagasu, and Ashley Wagner will be when the 2018 Olympics come around? Sound off in the comments below!