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 had 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 were made all the more glaring this week by Kwan's return 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, beating not one, not two, but three former U.S. champions.
"I'm happy I did or I else I would have looked like an awful person," Wagner 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."
Her next challenge will be at the world championships in March. Wagner and Czisny will need to finish with a combined placement of 13 to earn the Americans to spots at next year's all-important world championships, the qualifier for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
"I have some demons to overcome at worlds," said Wagner, who was 16th in her only appearance at the senior world championships but who has two bronze medals from the junior version. "I need to keep on training I've been training. I will relax, go home, do what I've been doing and things will go well."
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 much worse than others.
Czisny got off to rough start, putting her hand down on her opening triple lutz, and things didn't improve after that. 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 won the short program, and looked early on as she might hang onto the top spot. She opened 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 quickly became overwhelmed by the moment.
She fell twice, crashing 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. She dropped all the way to seventh in the long program and barely managed to hold off Caroline Zhang for third place.
"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.