Drama at Autumn Classic

Non-stop action at the Autumn Classic. The place was almost packed. A kindly crowd noisy and appreciative of what they see, no matter the country of birth.

A night of short programs, to get the first taste. Yes, Yuzuru Hanyu was the star but Mirai Nagasu was the revelation.

(Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, 2010 Olympic champions competing for the first time since the Sochi Games – easily won the short dance on Thursday night with a score of 77.72, easily besting their previous high of 77.17, which had stood as the fourth highest score of all time. But they are another story.)

Hanyu was less than magnificent first time out this season, but he still won the short, skating to Prince in a costume that even coach Brian Orser hadn’t seen before .(“This is the first I’ve seen of it, when he came out of the rest room,” Orser said. “Oh, white.”) The 2014 Olympic champion earned 88.30 points, a far cry from his world record of 110.95. Twenty-two points lower in fact.

Still, he became the first man to land a quadruple loop in competition, although it wasn’t as pretty as the one he did in warmup. American Alexei Krasnozhon attempted a very good one at a Junior Grand Prix in Ljubljana, Slovenia recently, but stepped out of it and got some minus GOEs out of it.

Hanyu lost oodles of points with the single Salchow-triple toe loop combo which fizzled into 2.20 points. (As soon as he got off the ice, he told Orser that he’d stepped into a hole, perhaps even from one he created in warmup.) He lost levels on two spins. One judge gave him marks as low as 7.75 for skating skills, while the rest were in the 9.25 range. He received average marks in the eight range for transitions and performance.

Orser said he thought Hanyu was nervous. “We’ve been fussing around the last couple of weeks,” he said. “Little injuries and little things. And it’s September and it’s kind of where we are.” It’s six months to worlds.

“He kind of digs this program,” Orser said. “I think it bodes well for the future. I think it’s a good vehicle.”

Jeff Buttle chose the music, soon after Prince died, and the Prince music was everywhere. “We wanted to go that direction,” Orser said. “I think for this year too, it’s time for it.”

But, aside from Hanyu and all that he trails along with him (abandon all hope for those who want an interview, especially English-speaking media), Nagasu was humbly magnificent. She’s had a long journey of incidents and accidents to come to this point: winning the short program at the Autumn Classic in Pierrefonds Sportsplex with its icy aqua walls.

In this setting, she delivered the highest short program score of her career: 73.40, thereby defeating mosquito-sized Elizabet Tursynbaeva of Kazakhstan by almost 12 points. Na Hyun Kim of South Korea was third with a triple loop – triple loop combination, while Rika Hongo of Japan was fourth.

Nagasu was a wonder child, the second youngest ever senior U.S. champion at age 14 in 2008. And she was only 16 when she made the U.S team to the Vancouver Olympics, where she was fourth. At the world championship that followed, Nagasu won the short program with 70.40. But the results were scattered since.

After working with a laundry list of coaches, Nagasu moved to Tom Zakrajsek in Colorado Springs two years ago. She had been left off the Sochi Olympic team, even though she finished third and the U.S. had three spots. Ashley Wagner being named to go in her place because of a better international record.

Zakrajsek had tall orders for her when she showed up. “I’m only in this to make you a world and Olympic champion,” he told her. “That is her potential. I didn’t want to do it just to work with someone in the twilight of their career.”

On Friday night, Nagasu had Zakrajsek beaming. “It was fun to watch,” he said. “I was so at ease. I knew something like that could come out. I was at peace through the whole program.” When she finished, the crowd gave a standing ovation. Youngsters who had been holding banners spelling out “Canada” earlier, rose to their feet for Nagasu.

Her jumps unfolded easily, like roses blooming. Triple flip – triple toe loop, clean as you please with positive GOE. Her spins, as usual, were things of beauty. Perhaps one of the best spinners in the world.

She skated to Nocturne, and that was a triumph in itself. She didn’t want to skate to “Nocturne”, another Buttle creation, at least at first. (She practices her free to – appropriately enough – “The Winner Takes It All” more than her short. Azkrajsek has to nudge her into Nocturne the odd time.)

The tough part about Nocturne for Nagasu? “It makes me really nervous at the beginning.” She said. “Tom and I have really worked on the beginning, because it is so quiet.

“I can hear the audience. I can hear myself think. So we really work on quieting my own mind because I can’t control the audience. I think after the initial softness, the audience goes quiet too. I think it has the effect we are looking for.” Nagasu said the quiet nature of the piece scared her a little because she felt she had to grab someone’s attention to keep it. “Other people have skated to this, but I feel the weight of this,” she said.

Zakrajsec says the Nocturne sets up a scenario that he wants for Nagasu. “We want to be podium material in the big show,” he said. “We want the audience hushed and have their attention. “

He added that Buttle who choreographed Nagasu’s short program and David Wilson who did the long, have passed on all sorts of wisdom. He’s grateful. “They know the business,” he said. “They know the career. Aside from their artistic greatness, it’s the other stuff that they impart.” Stuff like perspective.

Zakrajsec said that Buttle attended the U.S. Champ’s Camp because he had choreographed for several skaters at it. “Then when we talked about Marai, I could just tell that he got her.”

Nagusu didn’t lose focus like she used to do because Zakrajsek has her do lots of repetition. It gives her confidence. “My main thing is I want to feel confident, knowing I can do this in any situation.”

And she’s becoming less worried about making mistakes, because skaters, she says, strive for perfection and too often when they make one mistake, they look at the entire program as a failure. She’s been working through those destructive mentalities.

She said she enjoys training alongside former national champion Max Aaron. She finds it motivating. “We push each other,” she said. “He works really hard. I think what I’ve learned from Max is that there are a lot of people who will tell you you can’t do something and Max always likes to prove them wrong.”

Zakrajsek said Nagasu’s reputation had preceeded her when she showed up on his doorstep, but when he looked more closely, he thought: “This girl has something that really hasn’t been tapped and I was interested in helping her find that herself.”

She’s very easy to coach, he said. “She’s just becoming herself and she’s finding herself. I’m just very grateful that she asked me to coach her. I feel very humbled.”

Yes, yes, he’s talking about Mirai Nagasu. He feels this will by Nagasu’s year. ‘I can just tell how grounded she is,” he said.


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