SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Agnes Zawadzki sure knows how to shake things up.
The U.S. junior champ only two years ago, this 16-year-old Des Plaines native outskated not one, not two, but three former winners Thursday night to claim the short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. One of the few women to skate cleanly, her sultry routine to a blues medley earned her 66.24 points and put her three points ahead of defending champion Alissa Czisny going into the free skate Saturday. Ashley Wagner was third.
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Mirai Nagasu, the 2008 U.S. champ, was fifth after botching her opening jump. Rachael Flatt, the 2010 winner, was way down in ninth after a lackluster performance in front of an enthusiastic hometown crowd.
"I'm really excited," Zawadzki said, still grinning 15 minutes after she got off the ice. "Everything's finally clicked."
Earlier Thursday, Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker of Algonquin took a big lead in the pairs competition, winning the short program by more than four points. Marley and Brubaker, who already has two U.S. senior titles with former partner Keauna McLaughlin, scored 65.80 points with their delightfully peppy "Singing in the Rain" program.
The U.S. women have been stuck in a rut since Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen hung up their skates. They've gone five years without a medal at the world championships, came up empty at the Vancouver Olympics and will have only two spots at worlds for a fourth year in a row. Czisny, Flatt and Nagasu have all tried -- and failed.
All Zawadzki wants is a chance.
"I'd put her talent up against anybody," coach David Santee, a two-time Olympian from Park Ridge, said about Zawadzki. "I think it was just a matter of time until it was going to come out."
Zawadzki has medals from the last two junior world championships. But skating stopped being fun last season, and she was so unhappy over the summer that she seriously considered quitting.
"I wasn't really enjoying skating," she said. "But I wanted to try something before I stopped."
A senior at Cheyenne High School, Zawadzki didn't want to leave Colorado Springs, Colo., where she'd spent the last several years training with Tom Zakrajsek. She began working with another coach at the rink, Christy Krall, who also coaches world champion Patrick Chan, and then called Santee, her old coach in her native Chicago, and asked if he'd help train her, too.
"I hung up and thought, 'How's this going to work?"' Santee said. "But it's worked out great."
Santee likened the arrangement to "a corporation," with Krall as the chief operating officer in charge of day-to-day training and Santee the chief executive officer. He's traveled to Colorado three times since he resumed working with Zawadzki, and she's come back to Chicago once to work with him.
Though Zawadzki had a rough Grand Prix season, she and her coaches knew she was on the verge of doing something big. Where better than at the U.S. championships?
Her program to a blues medley was so captivating you could almost see the thick fog of smoke hanging over the bar and hear the clink of bottles. She opened with a monstrous triple toe loop-triple toe combination -- one of only a handful of women to even try a triple-triple combo -- that seemed to last for ages yet didn't take a second off her speed. Her triple Lutz was explosive, and her double axel done with ease.
The crowd was on its feet before she finished her final spin, and Zawadzki grinned and clapped before she buried her face in her hands.
"Not at all," Santee said when asked if he was surprised by Zawadzki's performance. "Because we know what she's capable of doing. We said all along she came in to win."
If she skates like this again Saturday, the rest of the favorites can't afford to make the errors they did Thursday night.
Czisny had no trouble with her triple Lutz-double toe combination or her triple loop. But she botched the double axel, the easiest jump in her program, drawing a gasp from the arena.
"I hesitated just a little bit going into the jump and that usually doesn't work," she said.
But Czisny is one of the most elegant and beautiful skaters around, and her component scores were strong enough to hold her up.
"Considering (the double axel) is worth the least amount of points, it's probably the best one miss if you're going to miss one. Which I'd prefer not to," Czisny said.
Nagasu stumbled out of the landing of her triple loop -- she did manage to do it in time to the music, at least -- and she lost whatever spark she had. Oh, her spins were gorgeous as always, the combination spin centered as perfectly as if she'd used a protractor. But it was like watching a movie in black-and-white instead of in HD.
"I'd say it was disappointing," coach Frank Carroll said. "When the loop was not good, the spark was gone so the program looked flat. When she's in character, it's great."