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Marcio Jose Sanchez, Associated Press
Ashley Wagner, center, reacts after seeing her scores in the ladies free skate event at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, Calif., Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Ashley Wagner picked the perfect time for the performance of her career.

Wagner won her first title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday, salvaging what was an otherwise dismal night of splats and spills with a majestic rendition of "Black Swan." She finished with a score of 187.02 points and then watched as two-time champion Alissa Czisny and Agnes Zawadzki melted down.

When the final results were posted, tears filled Wagner's eyes and she rested a hand on the shoulder of coach John Nicks. It was further affirmation that Wagner made the right choice last summer, when she left her family on the East Coast and moved to California to train with Nicks, best known as Sasha Cohen's coach. The change rejuvenated the two-time bronze medalist, who came into these nationals feeling it was her time to be a champion.

"I was really nervous going out there because I felt like it was getting to the point where I wanted it so bad," Wagner said. "Then I remembered that I've made all these changes for a reason. I've learned so much in my time in California and I needed to use that new training. Mr. Nicks has done a great of helping me refocus."

Wagner beamed as she stood on the podium, her smile as bright as the gold medal around her neck.

"I'm in shock," she said. "It hasn't hit me yet."

Czisny finished second and Zawadzki wound up third.

The U.S. has been looking for someone — anyone — with the starpower and skill to carry the Americans like Michelle Kwan did for almost a decade. The Americans have gone five years without a medal at the world championships, and they came home empty-handed from the Vancouver Olympics. For the fourth straight year, they'll have only two spots at the world championships.

It's a drought the likes of which the Americans have never seen and the shortcomings have been all the more glaring this week, with Kwan returning to nationals to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Wagner has freely admitted she wants to be the new face of U.S. skating, and she went out and backed it up.

"I'm happy I did or I else I would have looked like an awful person," she said. "This is a learning experience, I take something away from every competition I'm in and learn. If I skate with confidence, the results will come."

Third after the short program, Wagner needed a spectacular performance and some help from others. She did her part, a refreshing departure after a night of lackluster, one-dimensional performances. Wagner actually used her music and her portrayal of the "Black Swan" character was so vivid, it's a wonder feathers didn't pop out of her back. Her technical elements were woven right in with her artistic elements, rather than standing alone as individual tricks, and she could have been a swan floating on the lake for how majestically she moved across the ice

She wasn't perfect, popping a triple salchow and touching down with her free foot on her triple flip.

But it hardly mattered. None of the other top women skated cleanly, though some were more disastrous than others.

It was clear from the start there was not going to be Czisny's night, as she put her hand down on her opening triple lutz. And it only got worse from there, as she fell on her second triple lutz and was crooked in the air on a few other jumps. She was saved by her spins, which were gorgeous as always, high component marks for her elegant presentation.

"It's never easy to defend a title," Czisny said. "I'm disappointed with the way I skated but I'm happy I kept fighting."

Zawadzki actually got off to a strong start, opening with a double axel-triple toe loop combination that was bigger and smoother than any other jump done any other woman did Saturday night. But Zawadzki is just 17, two years removed from winning the junior title, and she seemed to become overwhelmed by the moment.

She crashed on a triple lutz and a triple salchow, and popped a triple toe that was supposed to be the opening jump of a combination. She also brushed up against the boards on a triple lutz-double toe combination.

"I've never been in this position so it's a different feeling for me," Zawadzki said. "I'm happy with what I've accomplished. I'm a little down on the long but happy with the overall result."

Earlier Saturday, Meryl Davis and Charlie White claimed their fourth straight title with a performance that showed why they set the gold standard in ice dance these days. The world champions' elegant and seamless routine to "Die Fledermaus" earned a total score of 191.54 points, nearly 13 better than siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani — who, as the reigning world bronze medalists, are not exactly slouches.

Davis and White need one more title to match the U.S. record held by Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto and four other teams.