Chen grabs surprising lead in short program at US nationals

Chen grabs surprising lead in short program at US nationals

Published Jan. 20, 2017 1:24 a.m. ET

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Karen Chen held off 20-something veterans Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold to put a teenage twist atop the short program leaderboard.

Chen had fans clapping for each splendid spin and the 17-year-old home schooled high school senior out of California floated in the air to ''On Golden Pond.''

Maybe gold at the podium could be next.

Chen flashed a peace sign, wagged her tongue and found a new spin on her routine was enough to grab a surprising lead Thursday in the women's short program.


Just 4-foot-10, the pint-sized skater blew kisses to the crowd and skated head up and confident to the kiss-and-cry area. She clasped her hands and smiled as her routine, which she choreographed herself, wowed judges and fans and scored 72.82 points.

Chen maximized her point total in footwork and spin elements and now has gold on her mind. The free skate is Saturday.

''If I'm able to pull out a perfect free skate and skate my best, it's surely a possibility,'' the 2015 bronze medalist said.

The hashtag for the event is (hash)USChamps17 - and it might be fitting if a 17 year old ends up with the scoring record and a champ.

Mirai Nagasu was second with 71.95 points and Wagner third at 70.94. Gold was fifth with 64.85 points.

Wagner, a bronze medalist last year, injected needed life into the event with a strong start to ''Sweet Dreams'' by the Eurythmics. But she wore down and had a shaky landing on the double axel.

''That's the last jump of mine on tired legs, you kind of stick to sticky ice,'' she said. ''I think in the long program, it won't be a problem.''

She otherwise looked confident, even winked to the crowd, and the crowd went more wild for her triple flip-triple toe than any other move of the night. Wagner, who would be 26 in Pyeongchang, competed in the 2014 Sochi Olympics and finished sixth in the ladies' competition, then helped the U.S. team win a bronze medal in the newly formed team event.

The three-time national champion had 70.94 points and she said she was in a ''great spot'' for the long program.

''People do not understand how difficult of a position I am in,'' she said. ''It might seem like I'm on top of the world ... but this is really a tough position to be in. It's mentally been weighing on my shoulders all season. To show people I'm a fighter, I'm really proud of that.''

The 21-year-old Gold opened up on her triple flip attempt and failed to score any points for that element. Gold came to Kansas City trying to erase a lackluster Grand Prix season, but the two-time and reigning U.S. champion had said her confidence was ''surprisingly high.'' She failed to dazzle in front of the pro-Gold crowd and remind everyone that she could still land on the Olympic podium.

''It wasn't what everyone else delivered,'' Gold said.

She said she felt ''slow'' as she readied for the triple.

''It needed tighter, faster,'' she said. ''It didn't have the speed of the other jumps in the program. In practice, I would have taken a lap and just gone faster.''

Kansas City was the site of the U.S. figure skating championships for the first time since 1985 .

The opening session started with a gold-crushing thud.

Danny O'Shea tossed Tarah Kayne like he did countless times as they forged themselves as the best pair in skating. This toss ended with Kayne on the ice instead of helping them tighten their title defense.

Kayne did not complete her throw triple lutz rotation and the right side of her face slammed the ice on O'Shea's throw during the short program. Kayne and O'Shea's defense of their pairs title got off to a miserable start in the U.S. championships when the fall derailed their routine.

''This season has been really difficult for us,'' Kayne said. ''I don't think we were coming out here to match what we did. It's been a huge struggle all season to just maintain.''

Kayne was diagnosed with a tendon issue in one her knees that had an impact on training and competition for much of the past year.

Kayne and O'Shea, back to defend the title they won in St. Paul, Minnesota, sit in fifth place and will need plenty of help and a flawless performance in the free program on Saturday.

''It's not how you want to finish a program,'' O'Shea said. ''We'll pick ourselves up.''

Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc topped the board with 69.33 points. Cain and LeDuc nailed their split triple twist, solo triple loops and throw triple flip to take the top spot.

Cain has not competed in pairs in nearly 4 1/2 years before she teamed with LeDuc in a May 2016 tryout. Not even a year later, the pair were in the thick of contention for their first U.S. national championship.

''The moment I took his hand, I didn't realize how much I missed pairs skating,'' Cain said. ''I had the biggest smile on my face and I could feel how happy I was; just skating with him, lifting me in the air.''

LeDuc took his own hiatus of nearly 2 1/2 years and his last major pairs event was the nationals in Boston.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier were second with 65.39 points and Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Nathan Bartholomay were third with 65.39 points.

Denney has made a solid comeback since she tore her ACL, LCL and meniscus while practicing a throw in April 2015. They are still finding their groove after sitting out the 2015-16 season. Denney and Frazier won a silver medal at Skate America in October and hope for another podium finish this weekend.

The U.S. would love to find a breakthrough star out of this event that fans could follow through next year's Winter Games in South Korea. Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir are wildly more popular in the broadcast booth than any of the skaters in the field.

''I think the American public really rallies behind skaters when they get on the platform and it attracts a larger audience and inspires more young ladies to try the sport,'' U.S. Figure Skating President Sam Auxier said. ''Clearly helping the ladies get to the podium is very critical for many aspects of U.S. figure skating