KENT, Wash. (AP) — Ashley Wagner knows there’s a lot of pressure on her to help return American women to the top of the international scene.
But that wasn’t the pressure Wagner was feeling before she delivered a solid performance to win the short program Saturday at Skate America.
“It was about getting my feet wet,” the defending U.S. champion said. “I was a little rusty out there, but it’s been seven months since my last real competition.”
Wagner scored 60.61 points, putting her more than a 1.5 points ahead of Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova going into Sunday’s free skate.
And her score could have been even better, if not for a botched triple loop.
“The triple loop was not exactly the quality I was looking for and I’m so bummed because I think it’s one of my strongest jumps,” said Wagner, who is seeking her first Grand Prix title. “That was my first short program out under the spotlight and the crowd so I’m pleased with how it went.
“I was able to stay on my feet and put out something that was quality. I’m happy with the day.”
Sotnikova wasn’t quite as pleased. The 16-year-old, who won the 2011 world junior title along with three of the last four Russian senior titles, popped her final jump. She finished with a score of 58.93.
“I’m not so happy with what I did today because I did not do what I wanted to do,” Sotnikova said through a translator. “I popped the last jump and it’s a jump that I usually never miss.”
American Christina Gao was third at 56.63, followed by France’s Mae Berenice Meite at 54.41. Russia’s Alena Leonova, expected to challenge Wagner and Sotnikova for the title here, struggled mightily and is way down in ninth place.
Later, Takahiko Kozuka overtook 17-year-old Yuzuru Hanyu to win the men’s title as Japan swept the top three spots. Kozuka won with 251.44 points, Hanyu had 243.74 and Tatsuki Machida 225.95.
Kozuka was second in the 2011 world championships and finished third last year at Skate America.
Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov displayed their sophisticated artistry to win the pairs competition with 195.07 points. The Russians were second in the last two world championships and last year’s Grand Prix final. China’s Qing Pang and Jian Tong were second at 185.16. They took silver in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Americans Caydee Denney and John Coughlin were third at 178.22. They took fourth last year.
Olympic silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White took a big step toward their third straight Skate America title, easily winning the short dance. They scored 71.39 points with their strong display of artistry, technique and quality. Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje were second at 65.79, followed by Russians Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev at 62.91.
Wagner is hoping to build on last year’s breakthrough season. In addition to her U.S. title, she placed fourth at the world championships, the best finish for a U.S. woman since 2007. She also beat two-time world champion Mao Asada to win the Four Continents title.
But the stakes are higher this year, with the world championships in March serving as the qualifier for the Sochi Olympics. No U.S. woman has made the podium at worlds or the Olympics since 2006.
The Americans will need more than Wagner, which makes Gao’s performance particularly encouraging. It was, by far, her best short program at an international event.
Maybe in any competition, Gao said.
“It’s hard to compare programs because each is different,” she said. “For this one, my jumps are a little different and my choreography is a bit different. It was definitely one of my better skates. I was pretty confident going into it and I just pretty much let each jump happen.”
Gao said she lost some levels on her footwork and spins, but was “really happy with how I did.”
In the men’s competition, Hanyu fell three times during his long program to lose the nearly 10-point lead he had over Kozuka after the short program when he skated flawlessly to set a world record at 95.07 points.
“Today’s performance was very close to my worst,” Hanyu said through a translator. “I haven’t skated that bad even in practice.”
Kozuka fell once, but still had the best long score at 166.12. Hanyu had 148.67.
“I think the level of Japanese men is very hard and very competitive,” Kozuka said through a translator about the dominance of his country. “But this is just the beginning of the season and I want to keep on skating as good as I did the rest of the season.”
American Jeremy Abbott placed fifth at 211.35. He fell twice and hung his head near tears at center ice after finishing his routine. He was third after the short program.
Russia’s Konstantin Menshov was fourth at 212.53.