CLEVELAND — Nearly everyone in the U.S. figure skating community was rooting for Alissa Czisny on Saturday night.
They were holding their collective breath to see if Czisny could shake her past problems, get through a four-minute free skate and give the sport a U.S. women's champion with an adult elegance and grace.
She would do just enough to win, thanks to some uninspired if efficient skating by the two women who finished behind her, Rachael Flatt and Caroline Zhang, and some generous scoring by judges who clearly assumed Czisny's usual brilliant artistry although it largely was absent.
"I'm a little disappointed with my performance," Czisny said. "I guess I just wanted the moment to be perfect."
Czisny skated very nervously after a strong start, falling on her second triple lutz and landing just three triples -- the fewest successful triples by any U.S. champion in nearly two decades. Yet her rivals could not overcome the lead she built in winning the short program.
"I guess my short program saved me a little bit," Czisny said.
Flatt, of Del Mar, and Zhang, of Irvine, each landed six triple jumps but their skating was so robotic they looked like R2 and D2.
Ashley Wagner, 12th after the short program, won the free skate to finish fourth. She was third a year ago,
"I think I got past a mental block," said Wagner, 17.
Czisny, 21, became the oldest first-time champion since Nancy Kerrigan won at 23 in 1993. She and Flatt, 16, earned the two U.S. places at the March world championships in Los Angeles.
"I think it would be awesome to see that mature skaters have a chance," said 1992 Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie. "In America, the tendency is to enjoy the phenom and look around to discover the next one."
Last year's winner, Mirai Nagasu, was 14 and none of the next three finishers was older than 16.
"People embrace Alissa," said 1984 Olympic champion Scott Hamilton. "To have a skater with maturity, presence, choreography and a more refined, defined style is much easier to watch."
Arcadia's Nagasu, unnerved by an ankle injury and adolescent angst all season, had a disastrous short program Thursday and cried from apparent dread before taking the ice Saturday. Then she gave a remarkably poised performance that left her exulting at the end, even if it left her only in fifth place.
"My biggest fear was that I would put all the practice to waste," Nagasu said. "Just the fact I was able to defeat the dark side of me was an accomplishment."
Czisny could feel the same way.
She overcame a seven-season struggle against technical and confidence issues just a year after she had entertained serious doubts about continuing her career.
"I think I'm finally ready," Czisny said. "I guess it wasn't my time until now."
A third in 2007 was the only time she had finished above seventh in seven previous appearances at senior nationals. Never before had she finished higher than fifth in a short program.
"Through the years, I have had a lot of disappointments and hard times," Czisny said. "I have learned from them all, and they made me a better skater and a better person."
Not since compulsory figures were eliminated in 1990 had a U.S. champion jumped from ninth one season to first the next.
"She has traveled a heroic arc," Wylie said. "fighting back from inconsistency and people who told her to give it up."
Czisny, a senior at Bowling Green, turned to 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano and his coach, Linda Leaver, to fix problems on her jumps and give her a positive mind-set.
"She checked her ego at the door and decided to make it happen," Hamilton said.