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FIGURE SKATING

Athleticism trumps artistry as Flatt wins national title

Mirai Nagasu finishes second at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and earns a spot in the Vancouver Olympics next month.

January 24, 2010|By Philip Hersh

Reporting from Spokane, Wash. — In the end, despite all the intriguing story lines, the decision came down to a familiar scenario in figure skating, whether the judges preferred the accomplished athlete or the dazzling artist.

But it wasn't the skater everyone would have singled out as the artist before the U.S. championships began.

And it was no surprise, given the mathematical emphasis of the sport's new judging system, that the winner was an athlete who knew how to play the numbers exceptionally well.

Rachael Flatt became national champion in a rout after Saturday night's free skate, her consistent jumping -- seven successful triples -- and methodically calculated spins helping provide the margin of victory over Mirai Nagasu.

Sasha Cohen, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist who was second to Nagasu in the short program, never was a factor in the free skate, when her jumping was shaky, with a fall and some two-footed landings. The rest of her performance was flat.

"I was disappointed," said Cohen, 25, competing for the first time in four years. "It wasn't the skate I was looking for."

Cohen was a distant fourth, more than 25 points behind Flatt's national meet-record total of 200.11, which beat the mark of 199.18 Cohen set in 2006. Ashley Wagner was third at 184.70.

Flatt and Nagasu, who had 188.78 points, got the United States' two women's spots in the 2010 Olympics next month in Vancouver.

"You had two different things going on out there," said Frank Carroll, who coaches Nagasu. "One is a great athlete. One is an artist."

NBC commentator Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion, figured -- as the crowd did after Nagasu's electric skating to "Carmen" -- the artist had won, until he saw the scoring details that showed the judges had downgraded three of Nagasu's triple jumps to doubles. The points lost there were effectively the difference between the top two.

"I blew it," Hamilton said. "I thought she [Nagasu] won. I got caught up in the performance.

"Rachael punched her time card every moment. She is consistent and solid. You can depend on her."

Flatt finished second in the previous two national championships, behind Nagasu (2008) and Alissa Czisny (2009). The wildly inconsistent Czisny fell in both programs here and finished 10th.

"I would like to be both steady and spectacular," said Flatt, 17, a high school senior in Colorado Springs, Colo. "I have been on the cusp of some really great performances, but I have never been completely satisfied. I struggle with holding back in my performances a little."

Flatt's approach has brought results. Her fifth place at the 2009 worlds was the best by a U.S. woman. She did clean short and long programs at this nationals, finishing less than a point behind both Nagasu and Cohen in the short.

That sort of steady effort could bring a medal in the upcoming Olympics if the favored skaters -- South Korea's Kim Yuna and Japan's Mao Asada and Miki Ando -- fall short of their past levels.

Not since 1964, in the aftermath of the 1961 plane crash that killed the elite of U.S. skating, has a U.S. woman not won a medal in the Olympics.

Nagasu, 16, of Arcadia, had struggled so badly after winning nationals two years ago that few gave her a shot at the Olympic team, and she spoke of building toward the 2014 Winter Games.

"I said I wasn't thinking about the Olympics, but it was always in the back of my mind," Nagasu said. "We don't have a strong Michelle Kwan or Kristi Yamaguchi to lead us on, but even though we're young we have our big dreams to lead us on.

"I'm glad I didn't skate my best. For the Olympics, I have a lot to work on. Hopefully, they will name me to the team."

Meryl Davis and Charlie White finished a clean sweep of all three phases in the ice dance competition at the U.S. championships with a Saturday free dance to "Phantom of the Opera" that had athletic pyrotechnics as dramatic as the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

phersh@tribune.com

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