When Ashley Wagner won her third national title last year, it was kind of groundbreaking - no woman has won more than two U.S. titles since Michelle Kwan (and she won nine). Between 2006 and 2011, only Alissa Czisny won more than one title. But the ascent of Wagner and the emergence of Gracie Gold has ushered in a new rivalry in U.S. ladies skating, one that started in 2013 and continues at the 2016 U.S. Nationals next week. And provided that Wagner and Gold bring it in St. Paul, the super interesting fight will be for bronze (and the third spot for Worlds).
2016 US Nationals: Rocker Predictions
GOLD Ashley Wagner - It's really been a bit of a strange season for Wagner. She's had the highest of highs and the mediocre-est of mediocres. After all, she broke 70 in the short (Skate Canada) and 130 in the free (Grand Prix Final) for the first time in international competition. She's got the two strongest programs of her career here, and it's pretty amazing how much she's been able to continue to improve season after season. But she had a mediocre NHK, where she was off the podium on the Grand Prix for the first time since 2011. Her key, as always, is a strong short program. And skating fans will be interested to know that, while she showed off a double axel-triple toe on her Instagram at the end of last year, she says she has not changed her program layout for Nationals.
SILVER Gracie Gold - Not unlike Wagner, Gold has had an up and down season as well. Her biggest issue, by far, has been the triple flip. She and her team have replaced her loop in the short with that flip, but it's a much less comfortable jump for her because she's constantly trying to make sure she's on an inside edge. The short program is also where it will come together and fall apart for her, and it will set her up for confidence in her free skate. Two clean programs from Gold would not only be great for her chances to win a second national title, but it could be a game-changer for her mindset going into Worlds. She also hasn't changed her programs, so that flip will be crucial.
BRONZE Courtney Hicks - Those huge jumps got Hicks to the Grand Prix podium for the first time at NHK Trophy in November, and more notably, she finished above Wagner and Mao Asada in the process. She hasn't had a great last two Nationals, but she comes in as fit and confident as ever. And that arsenal of jumps don't hurt either. Might this be her first appearance in the top three at Nationals, which would most certainly translate to her first Worlds appearance?
4. Mirai Nagasu - In so many ways, the last two Nationals has been so much about Nagasu. The 2008 champ has very much a sentimental favorite over the past few years - especially after her bronze-but-no-Olympics showing in 2014 and the knee injury that she suffered after clipping the boards in the middle of her free skate last year. A return to the podium would most certainly be the result of her will and motivation to come back time after time, and she comes in with stronger jumps than ever. But to do that, she will have to conquer some of the demons (short program pun intended) that seem to come with Nationals and embrace the ovation that the crowd will most certainly be giving her at every turn.
5. Karen Chen - The reigning bronze medalist was quite the breath of fresh air last year. In a lot of ways, she ignited a whole lot of excitement for fans of American skating, because she was all of 15 and putting down the difficult elements that everyone is so used to seeing from the Russian and Japanese up-and-comers. Her Grand Prix debut was solid but not spectacular, and the lutz-toe hasn't been fully-rotated yet this season. She's certainly got podium potential yet again, but the jumps will need to be more solid than they have been this season.
6. Polina Edmunds - Silver at Nationals two years ago, Edmunds has been middling a bit in international competitions. But her two eighth-place finishes at Worlds the past two years has shown that she is very much up there. Her issues on the Grand Prix were rotation-related - she had ten underrotation calls in four programs - and it wouldn't be surprising if she has more of them here. But what she has over some of the others is the consistency in landing, even if the rotation isn't quite there. So Edmunds' chances of getting back on the World team will likely depend on a combination of her fully-rotated jumps and mistakes from the others.
7. Angela Wang - After two consecutive 15th-place finishes, Wang comes into St. Paul with a stronger season, a beautiful triple Rippon loop, and no injuries. She's got the potential to be the spoiler, though, because when she puts it together, she's got an all-around package that could put her in the top five. But for her to even have a chance, she absolutely must put down a clean short.
8. Bradie Tennell - The reigning U.S. junior champion makes her debut this year on the senior ranks. And for anyone who watched her in Greensboro last year, they would have thought that Tennell would have made a splash on the Junior Grand Prix this season. Instead, she was a completely different skater from the consistent one we saw last season. And an 11th in her one and only JGP didn't help her reputation. But she has gained momentum in the background, winning Midwesterns a few months back and hitting a triple lutz-triple toe in the process. It will be interesting to see where she fits in next week.
9. Mariah Bell - Sixth last year, Bell had a rough international season so far, perhaps going for too much technical difficulty and just not giving off any sort of the confidence that we saw from her last year in her free skate in Greensboro. She has top five potential, but her jumps are going to need to be a whole lot better than they've been in order to do that.
10. Franchesca Chiera - If you want to see a booming triple lutz, look no further than Chiera, who is one of those skaters you see in practice who you're like, "whoa, where did those jumps come from?" Her programs themselves tend to be less impressive, but nonetheless, she looked strong at Easterns and has top 10 potential in St. Paul.