Luck, strong will, maybe even a little generosity from the judges.
The details really don't matter. All anyone will remember is that Ashley Wagner now has something in common with Michelle Kwan.
Wagner became the first woman since Kwan in 2005 to win back-to-back titles in the U.S. figure skating championships, managing to hold off up-and-comer Gracie Gold despite two falls Saturday night.
"To join that type of a club with Michelle is absolutely an honour, and I'm so pleased with myself that I was able to accomplish that," Wagner said. "That was one of my main goals this season. I wanted to say I was a repeat national champion. I definitely lucked out at this competition.
"Knowing that, it only pushes me more to have the rest of the season be nice and solid."
Wagner finished with 188.84 points, about two ahead of Gold. Gold won the free skate — posting the second-highest score ever at the U.S. meet, no less. But the 17-year-old had too much ground to make up after a dismal performance Thursday night in the short program left her in ninth place, more than 13 points behind Wagner.
'To join that type of a club with Michelle is absolutely an honour, and I'm so pleased with myself that I was able to accomplish that. That was one of my main goals this season. I wanted to say I was a repeat national champion. I definitely lucked out at this competition.' —Figure skater Ashley Wagner
"This is my first U.S. championships and it was horrifying at the beginning. But now it's been amazing," said Gold, who won the U.S. junior title last year. "I'm so proud of myself that I was able to come back after that very, very rough short program and to put out that long program that's the best I've ever done."
Agnes Zawadzki dropped from second to third after falling on her triple flip.
Earlier Saturday, Olympic silver medallists and 2011 world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White won their fifth straight dance title, matching a U.S. record. Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir won the pairs title.
There is something about defending the title that brings out the worst in the American women. Since 1990, Kwan is the only other woman to win consecutive titles (granted, she did win eight straight). Six women have won the last seven crowns, and the reigning champion has almost always had a total meltdown. Rachael Flatt is the only defending champ who even managed to stay on the podium the next year.
"I don't think anyone could have prepared me for how difficult this national championships was going to be," Wagner said.
Wagner, though, is made of stern stuff. She's been rock solid since moving to California to train with John Nicks in the summer of 2011. She won the U.S. title last year, had the best finish by an American at worlds since 2007 and won the silver medal last month in the Grand Prix final.
And she sure looked loose as she came out from the dressing rooms, clapping along with the crowd to Zawadzki's "Rhapsody in Blue" music. Her opening triple flip-double toe loop-double toe combination was gorgeous, drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd. She also did a triple loop in and out of a spread eagle — incredibly difficult.
But she didn't have her usual fire, almost as if she was skating not to lose rather than skating to win.
"I was feeling great that first half," Wagner said. "Then I started to overthink it a little.
She was off-balance in the air on a triple lutz, and couldn't right herself in time to save it. With a triple loop only seconds later, she didn't have time to regroup and she tumbled to the ice on that one, too.
Wagner was subdued as she waited for her marks, surely thinking she'd blown her chance to repeat. At 21, though, Wagner is a far more complete skater than Gold, and that's what made the difference. Skating to "Samson and Delilah," Wagner told a story while Gold just skated and jumped.
When her score was announced and she saw she was still in first, a look of surprise crossed her face before she smiled.
"I was very uncertain as to what was going to happen, waiting for those scores to come up. I knew the program as whole, aside from the two mistakes, was very solid," Wagner said. "It's definitely not the type of win, not the performance I had imagined myself having. But the fact I was able to repeat as champion with those two performances, that's something to be proud of."
Gold's performance was something to be proud of, too.
Better yet, something to build on.
With blonde good looks and a made-for-the Olympics name, Gold has all the makings of that "next big thing" the United States has been craving. That she can skate only fueled the hype, and some were ready to put her on the Sochi medals stand after she won the U.S. junior title last year and finished second in the junior world championships.
But she's been wildly inconsistent this year, winning the silver medal at Cup of Russia after falling apart at Skate Canada. After botching her short program Thursday, she needed a dazzling performance just to have a chance at one of the spots on the world championships team.
She came through, posting a 132.49 that was the second-highest score for a free skate at nationals. Sasha Cohen scored 134.03 in 2006, the year she won her only U.S. title.
"I stopped focusing on what was around me — the crowd, the screaming, the other skaters, the pressure, the expectations. I let it all go," Gold said. "I just pictured myself at my rink in Chicago and even the practices here — how I would skate if I was practicing. Just the feel of the knees, the feel of the ice, one thing at a time.
"I didn't get over my head with thoughts or expectations. I just went out there and skated like I know how to skate."
Gold's jumps are fabulous, easily the best of the entire field. Maybe the whole world. They're done with power, and her combinations are so smooth she looks like a stone skipping across the water. She did seven triples, and even Kim Yu-na would be impressed with her triple lutz-triple toe loop combination.
But skating is both sport and art, and Gold is going to have to add some substance between the jumps if she wants the prize to match her name. Her footwork was basic and most of her spins were adequate, and she didn't display that passion that makes a good program great.
"They pushed me," Gold said, looking at Wagner and Zawadzki. "After that short program, I didn't want to compete. But I knew I had a lot of competitors and I had to push through."