Ashley Wagner was a wreck.
She hadn't found a random sparkle, one of her pre-competition superstitions. She couldn't find her mom in the crowd, another superstition. And then a song she absolutely hates began playing, and she was sure her entire U.S. figure skating championships was about to go up in flames.
Not even close.
With an elegant, polished performance Thursday night, Wagner showed she has the makings of the steady star that American skating has been craving since Michelle Kwan hung up her skates. Wagner won the short program at the U.S. figure skating championships, her score of 67.57 points giving her a two-point lead going into Saturday's free skate.
"I did exactly what I came here and planned on doing," Wagner said. "I skated solid. I felt I really owned every single jump, spin, element I had in the program."
Agnes Zawadzki was second, just ahead of 2008 U.S. champion Mirai Nagasu.
The U.S. women have been, quite frankly, a mess since Kwan stepped away. Six women have won the last seven titles, and no one since Kwan in 2005 has strung together two in a row. Nagasu, Rachael Flatt, Alissa Czisny — they've all teased fans with their possibility only to fall apart on the world's biggest stages.
But Wagner has come into her own since picking up, leaving her family and friends on the East Coast and moving to southern California in the summer of 2011 to train with John Nicks, best known as Sasha Cohen's coach. Wagner has shown she's got the psyche AND the skills to be a champion, and she isn't afraid of the spotlight.
Just like Kwan in her day, she embraces the expectations and then goes out and delivers.
"She fights well," Nicks said. "Things don't always go well out there and you have to have someone who's going to go out and fight."
Wearing a gorgeous burgundy dress with a dark underskirt, Wagner had the audience mesmerized from the time she stepped on the ice. No one would have had a clue she had all those negative thoughts racing through her head, so great was the command with which she skated. The arena fell completely silent, as if fans were afraid to speak or even breathe for fear they might miss something.
Though she didn't do a triple-triple combination like Zawadzki or Nagasu, all of her jumps were done with such high quality they seemed that much better. And her spins are, simply exquisite. They were so perfectly centred she may as well have been using a protractor.
When she finished, she gave a satisfied nod and small clap of her hands before breaking into a wide grin.
"Nationals is one of my favourite competitions," Wagner said. "[But] coming in, I was definitely a little bit nervous. No one can really prepare you for how it feels to come in as the past year's champion."
But Wagner wears the mantle well.
"She knew she had to go out there and do it, and she went out and did it," Nicks said. "It's not always what you do, but how you do it."
Zawadzki, who won last year's short program with a record U.S. score, was left to skate. But any chance she had of passing Wagner ended when she tumbled to the ice on her double axel.
Still, with the rest of her program packed with power, she had enough to move ahead of Nagasu. She really should have gotten clearance from an air traffic controller she had so much distance on her triple toe loop-triple toe loop combo, and her speed would impress any sprinter.
After last year, however, Nagasu is quite happy with where she is.
"I feel like the little girl from ages ago who wanted to go to the Olympics and medal," Nagasu said. "I feel like I've been trying to regain that memory. Sometimes it's hard, but it's been a great journey."
Nagasu is quite possibly the most talented skater the United States has. Her speed, the power with which she jumps, her ability to hear music and to bring a program to life — those are the qualities that make figure skating so magical, and Nagasu has them all.
Her psyche, however, has been a different story.
Since finishing fourth overall at the Vancouver Olympics and winning the short program at the world championships a month later, she's been on a downward spiral. She bombed her free skate at those 2010 worlds and wound up seventh. She didn't make the world team the following year, dropping from first after the short program at nationals to third.
And last year was simply horrid. Nagasu was never even a factor at nationals and wound up seventh.
"I did not have the greatest of seasons last year, so this has really been a comeback year," she said. "With each day of training, I'm able to regain my confidence a little bit."
Nagasu parted ways with coach Frank Carroll, who has moved his training base from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, and now trains closer to home. She also has gone back to the things that worked when she was a phenom, choosing big band music for her short program.
Though she won the bronze medal at NHK Trophy, Nagasu arrived here with little, if any, fanfare. And with the pressure off, Nagasu reminded everyone of why there were such high expectations in the first place.
Her jumps were done with great speed and control, and she had one of the few clean triple-triple combinations of the night. Her spins were breathtaking for their intricacy and elegance, and even Gumby would be a little green(er) at her flexibility. But what really set her program apart was how seamless it was, one element flowing into another so that it was impossible to tell what was athletics and what was art.
The only flaw was the blank expression on her face; she didn't break into her trademark smile until the very end.
"Instead of putting a lot of importance on placing and skating, where I place, we've been working to improve my skating and overall my look," Nagasu said. "It's not just about the placements. So I don't feel as much pressure on that end, and hopefully we can just improve from here."
Earlier Thursday, Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir took a big step toward their first pairs title, easily winning the short program. With 62.27, they've got a whopping nine-point lead on Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay going into Saturday's free skate.