CLEVELAND, Ohio – Two Northern Virginia athletes competing at the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships, Ashley Wagner of Alexandria and Tommy Steenberg of Annandale, both recovered from poor short programs to rise up through the ranks in the final standings with strong free skate efforts last weekend.
Wagner notched the highest score of all the senior women in her free skate, coming in fourth overall and earning a spot at the Junior World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria in March.
A third rising area skater, junior Armin Mahbanoozadeh of McLean, a student at Langley High School, made the U.S. Figure Skating Scholastic Honors high school academic team, earning a $2,500 college scholarship. He finished in the middle of the field in the junior men’s competition, and Alexandria’s Austin Wagner, younger brother of Ashley, was out of the top ranks in the novice competition.
Ashley Wagner, who is a 17year-old senior at West Potomac High School, finished behind Alissa Czisny, Rachael Flatt and Caroline Zhang in the final standings, and her four-minute free skate segment Saturday was better than any of them at 115.05 points. But a couple of falls in her short program on Friday, which left her in 12th place, prevented her from being able to rise further than to fourth, overall. That was one slot lower than her third place finish in 2008.
Colorado native Jeremy Abbott won his first senior men’s title, wresting the honor away from five years’ control by either Johnny Weir or Evan Lysacek. Abbott, 23, who finished fourth in his two previous senior men’s championship competitions, came in fresh off of winning the international Grand Prix Final in Japan in December.
Second place for the senior men went to a veritable unknown, Brandon Mroz, a high school senior from St. Louis, who trains with Abbott under Tom Zakrajsek at the Broadmoor Skating Club in Colorado Springs. Mroz landed a quad at the start of his free skate, and sailed from there. It was Mroz’ first senior competition at Nationals, having finished second as a junior last year.
While Mroz said his free skate performance was “right up there” with his all-time best, Abbott and third-place finisher, defending champion Lysacek, both admitted their efforts were far less than perfect. But Abbott’s was good enough, combined with a flawless short program on Friday, to secure the victory as the event’s final performer.
Parker Pennington, formerly of Northern Virginia for a three-year stint training at the Fairfax Ice Arena, pulled off a personal best in the short program to place third, but then dropped to the 10th best free skate to finish eighth overall. Pennington, a long-time resident of Cleveland, was a hometown favorite of the crowd, as was Czisny, from nearby Bowling Green, Ohio.
Steenberg, 20, a graduate of W. T. Woodson High School, “popped” a triple axel in his short program, dooming him to 14th place. He knew he was having trouble with the jump that day, trying over and over in warm-ups to land it, succeeding only twice in nine tries.
But he nailed it in the free skate on Sunday, finishing seventh in that competition to wind up 10th overall.
Returning to Northern Virginia Monday morning, he said he’d take a week off, and then will get back to work on the ice, even though his next formal competition will not be before the summer.
The biggest story of the competition was the failure of Weir and Lysacek to continue their rivalry at the top of the senior men’s field, as expected.
Lysacek and Weir finished in a dead heat for first place at the Nationals in St. Paul, Minn., a year ago, with Lysacek prevailing according to the rules by winning the free skate. That was after Weir had won for three straight years, in 2004, 2005 and 2006, then falling to Lysacek in 2007.
At the press conference following the competition Sunday, Lysacek said he was baffled by his poor performance, saying he felt he was totally prepared and feeling good going in. He said his mistakes, including a fall, came as complete surprises to him. Winding up in third, he did not mince words expressing his personal disappointment at relinquishing his title.
Weir made one major mistake in the short program on Friday, falling out of a triple axel, that cost him dearly, over 10 points in the judges’ scoring, leaving him in seventh place. While the best he could have reasonably hoped for after that was a third place, his free skate was unspectacular, including one fall, and he had to settle for fifth, overall.
After the competition, U.S. Skating officials moved quickly to make their selections for the upcoming World Championships, which for seniors will be in Los Angeles in March, selecting Abbott, Mroz and Lysacek for the men.
Weir appealed to be included, on grounds he was ranked fourth in the world, and arguing that he’d been disabled by serious illness leading into the Nationals. His appeal was not heeded, and he was listed as an alternate, meaning that his season has effectively ended earlier this year than for any since 2004.
Weir had chronicled, in his journal on his official web site, that he’d fallen seriously ill twice in December, first on the eve of the Grand Prix Finals in Japan and again on Christmas at a benefit in Korea. Moreover, he flew separately from New York for each event, totaling four 14 hour flights.
Asked by a reporter why he used his illness as an excuse when Michael Jordan often played and excelled while sick, Weir quipped that while Jordan had teammates around him to help, “I’m a single, skinny, sparkly boy standing in the middle of the ice all by myself.”
On Sunday night, following event-culminating exhibition showcase, Abbott and Mroz were happily mingling among friends, family, fellow athletes and admirers in the lobby of the hotel where all the skaters were staying, while neither Lysacek or Weir were anywhere to be found.