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Nagasu, 14, dazzles to take big lead at U.S. skating championship

1/25/2008

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Mirai Nagasu's mouth dropped open when
she saw her scores. And that was before she realized she'd knocked
off former world champion Kimmie Meissner.

"Wait, it's 12 points?" Nagasu said, her eyes widening when
she heard how big a lead she had on Meissner. "Wow. That's
exciting."

Get used to it, kid. If the 14-year-old keeps skating like this,
there's going to be lots more excitement to come.

Nagasu pulled off one of the biggest upsets ever at the U.S.
Figure Skating Championships on Thursday night. In her very first
senior nationals -- heck, her very first competition as a senior --
the teenager won the short program with a spectacular performance
that showed amazing flexibility, strong jumps and a presence on the
ice well beyond her years.

Her score of 70.23 is the second-highest ever by an American
woman in a short program, and it would stack up against anyone in
the world. She had a 12.65 lead over Meissner, and it will be
almost impossible for the defending national champion to beat her
in Saturday's free skate.

About the only one with a real shot at catching Nagasu is Ashley
Wagner, second with 65.15 points. Rachael Flatt was third with
62.91 points. Even if Nagasu wins, though, she can't go to the
world championships because she's too young.

"It was just fun out there," Nagasu said. "I'm not going to
let any of the pressure from being in first bother me."

Reigning junior world champ Caroline Zhang said she wasn't
bothered by the expectations of her, but she sure didn't live up to
the hype with an uncharacteristically conservative program that has
her in seventh place. She stepped out of the second jump on her
triple flip-triple toe combination, and was so slow going into her
double axel she almost came to a complete stop.

"I just wasn't skating well for me," Zhang said. "It just was
a pretty slow performance."

Nagasu's precociousness is nothing new. She came to the national
championships last year as a complete unknown -- she'd never even
made it to the final qualifier -- and skated off with the junior
title. She then finished second to Zhang at junior worlds, part of
a 1-2-3 American sweep with Ashley Wagner.

But while Zhang and Wagner moved up to the senior ranks this
fall -- and right into the world spotlight -- Nagasu stayed at the
junior level to get more experience internationally. She routed the
competition, winning everything she entered.

There's a big difference between juniors and seniors, though,
and no one quite knew what to expect from her here. She was so
excited Wednesday night she couldn't sleep, getting her in trouble
with her mother.

"I think Mirai had a lot of nerves," said her coach, Charlene
Wong. "I just think she's learning how to make it work for her."

She had everything working Thursday night.

Skating to "I Got Rhythm," she was a delight, a reminder of
how beautiful and fun skating can be. She danced across the ice
with playful footwork, and her bright smile made the entire
audience feel as if it was dancing right along with her.

Her triple lutz-triple toe loop jump combination had exquisite
flow, and her triple flip was effortless. But her most impressive
elements were her spins and spirals, with a flexibility that would
make Gumby look stiff. Other skaters may contort themselves into
the same positions, but she does it with such grace it looks
pretty, not painful. And she's got some serious speed going,
buzzing across the ice.

"My goal right now is to skate my best and have fun," she
said.

The goal for everyone else? To try and catch her.

It wasn't that long ago that Meissner was the up-and-comer,
tailing after Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen. Now she's the grand
dame of U.S. skating and a former world champion, trying to hold
off the pack of youngsters who want to take her spot on the podium.

"I feel more mature. Let's not say old or anything," the
18-year-old said, smiling.

But being the favorite hasn't always been easy for Meissner. She
finished fourth trying to defend her world title last year, and has
struggled since then. She had a disastrous outing at the Grand Prix
final last month, finishing dead last in the six-woman field.

"I feel like I want to come back after the Grand Prix final. I
don't even want to talk about that," she said. "That was just a
bad day."

This was better.

She got off to a rough start, falling on her first jump, a
triple flip. But she recovered with a nice triple lutz-double toe
loop combination, and her double axel was so smooth she easily
could have thrown in another rotation. Her footwork was nice, its
lightness the perfect match to Peter Gabriel's "The Feeling
Begins."

"That was such a silly mistake," she said. "I was like, `Come
on, Kimmie, that's not right.' There's no falling in figure
skating."

But the fall and the fact she did a less-difficult combination
than the top three means defending her title is no longer in her
control.

Earlier Thursday, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto all but wrapped
up their record-tying fifth straight dance title with a number that
would be huge with the country crowd. The Olympic silver medalists
won the original dance with an entertaining hoe-down number that
scored 64.29 points and gave them a total score of 106.15.

And that was even with Agosto making an obvious error in his
footwork near the end of the program.

"What was really frustrating was, aside from that, it was a
great performance," Agosto said. "You hate to end it on that
note."

They get a do-over in Saturday's free dance, when they are
virtually assured of winning the title and tying four other couples
for most U.S. titles. Training partners Meryl Davis and Charlie
White were three points behind, but it may as well have been 50 for
as much movement as there is in dance.