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National Championships Preview: Pairs and Ladies

The national figure skating championships start tonight in San Jose, California. These performances will almost surely decide the teams for the Four Continents Championships and the World Championships. Here's a look at what I expect from some of the top competitors.

Pairs

The Contenders

Denney and Coughlin: They rode a USFSA hype machine into the season but didn't come out with any Grand Prix medals. They have a nice triple twist, but a nice triple twist does not an elite team make. They actually make a nice pair but they just don't have the chops to compete on the international stage. Nationally, though, is a different story. They have been placed on the pedestal as the top US pair all season and that should end with a national championship for them in San Jose. But if they make too many errors, you can be sure a clean Evora and Ladwig will be able to contend for the title.

Evora and Ladwig: If this were a sports movie, Evora and Ladwig would have a bulletin board pinned full of all the hype-tastic Icenetwork articles that were done this season on Denney and Coughlin. And then Evora and Ladwig would come out with passion and fight and steal the attention away and win the whole thing. But, this is not a sports movie. And Evora and Ladwig are probably too mild-mannered to come out swinging. I am pretty sure this competition will come down to the cleaner team, but it would be nice to see some spark mixed in.

The Dark Horses

Marley and Brubaker: These two made a splash at their first nationals together last season by coming in fourth place. They haven't quite progressed as much this season as I would have liked to have seen but it's still only their second year working together and she's still quite young (and looks it). I would not be surprised to see them on the podium.

Others to watch: Castelli and Shnapir, Vise and Baldwin.

Prediction

1) Denney and Coughlin

2) Evora and Ladwig

3) Marley and Brubaker

Ladies

The Contenders

Alissa Czisny: Czisny is the reigning national champion after last season's amazing competitive resurgence. She won Skate America and came in third at Trophee Eric Bompard. But the last we saw her, she was injured and not looking good at the Grand Prix Final. She is now recovered and is trying to win her third national championship, which is no small feat. Examiner reports that Czisny will not try the triple lutz/triple toe, but instead will do a double axel/triple toe. The double axel/triple toe is impressive, but I really would love to see Czisny go for that triple/triple. Czisny has also reportedly removed problem jump triple salchow from her repertoire. I hope these changes pay off. For me, they seem a bit of a defensive strategy, which indicates maybe something shaky going on mentally, if it's a big enough deal to forgo the salchow altogether. At the same time, you don't medal for sticking to your guns, you medal for racking up points. And this is Czisny's strategy. She has two absolutely gorgeous programs this season; they may be my very favorites of the year for the ladies. She should be ahead of everyone on program components, with only Mirai Nagasu having a hope of getting close there. But she needs to be fairly clean so she can repeat as national champion. Lucky for her, the other ladies are not known for their consistency.

Mirai Nagasu: Nagasu has been up and down this season, as she tends to be. She came in second at Cup of China but only fifth at Skate Canada. On a good day, she could easily take this competition. She can rack up the components marks on her great spins and presentation. But she can be a sloppy jumper and she can often lose focus. I don't think she'll let us see a repeat of last year, when she found herself off the world team. Honestly, I have no idea what to expect from her, but I think she wants to get on everybody's radar again. She won this event in 2008; four years later and four years more mature and experienced - could it be her time again?

Ashley Wagner: Wagner has not been so lucky the last couple of years when it comes to the U.S. National championships. This season, she won the bronze at Skate Canada but finished just off the podium at NHK Trophy. She has a more mature look this season and I really like her free skate. She just has to keep away from the underrotations and the two-footed landings that tend to plague her. I think she'll be good for a medal but it will take mistakes from others and a lights-out performance from her (not unheard of) to bring home the gold.

The Dark Horses

Rachael Flatt: How long has it been since Rachael Flatt has not been one of the top contenders at Nationals? I couldn't in good conscience classify her as one, since she has been out of shape and off the podiums all season. And to be honest, she hasn't seem to be that worried about it. I have no idea if she'll show up focused and refined, but it would take two skates of a lifetime for her to win. It's been downhill for Flatt since she skated injured at worlds last season and was met by a US Figure Skating fine.

Agnes Zawadzki: Zawadzki was a disappointment this season. She attempted a more mature look and could not pull it off, particularly not without her impressive triple jumps. She switched coaches for the season and she hasn't looked comfortable at all. If she cleans her act up, she has a chance at a medal given her jumping capabilties. But that's a big if.

Christina Gao: Gao tried to grow up a bit on the Grand Prix this season but she hasn't quite got a hold on the refined style yet, similar to Zawadzki. She had trouble with her jumps as well, likely due to a summer hip injury that took up a lot of her training time, so her Grand Prix effort was a disappointment. I'll be surprised if she can leap over the ladies above who will have much stronger program components, but she has impressed at nationals before so don't totally count her out.

Others to watch: Let's not forget Caroline Zhang, Vanessa Lam (who came in fifth at the Junior Grand Prix Final), Samantha Cesario (withdrawal) (two bronzes on the Junior Grand Prix circuit). Cesario is from Oceanside, New York, apparently, which is where my parents live, so I have to pull a bit for the Long Island girl.

Prediction

1) Alissa Czisny

2) Mirai Nagasu

3) Ashley Wagner