Californians favored for national title

Rachael FlattTwo California teenagers are favored to win the ladies’ competition at the 2009 U.S. Championships, Jan. 18-25 in Cleveland, Ohio. Neither of the front runners are reigning U.S. Champion Mirai Nagasu, who is trying to defend her national title in the midst of an injury-plagued season.

Reigning World Junior Champion Rachael Flatt and 2007 World Junior Champion Caroline Zhang enter the U.S. Championships after successful campaigns on the Grand Prix series. Both Flatt and Zhang, who like Nagasu were too young to compete at Worlds last season, are favorites to win in Cleveland.

But Nagasu is not ready to give up the title of America’s best just yet.

“Everyone has gone through (an injury), most everyone has gotten past it,” Nagasu said. “So regardless of my rebellious side, I know that I need to be strict with myself and discipline myself to get past it. If I get through all of the hard stuff now, it’ll be like getting over a mountain where climbing up is difficult, but climbing back down is fun and full of excitement.”

Earlier this season, she made her senior international debut by finishing fifth at Skate America and eighth at the NHK Trophy. It was a departure from her bronze medal at the 2008 World Junior Championships.

“Just the prospect of what’s beyond that mountain just makes me want to go farther,” said Nagasu, who now stands 5-foot-3 after measuring 4-foot-11 last year. The growth spurt has caused foot pain that she tried to train through.

Flatt has had more success this season than any other American lady, having finished fourth at Skate America and second at Cup of Russia. Recently named a spokesperson for Reading is Fundamental and MAC Cosmetics, her resume also includes a silver medal at the 2007 Junior Grand Prix Final.

Zhang, who often works with five-time World Champion Michelle Kwan, placed fifth at 2008 Skate Canada before winning the bronze at Trophee Eric Bompard. She was fourth at the 2007 Grand Prix Final and second at the 2008 World Junior Championships.

Flatt finished second at the 2008 nationals while Zhang was fourth.

Other skaters in the hunt for the title include last year’s bronze medalist Ashley Wagner and 2007 bronze medalist Alissa Czisny. Wagner finished fourth at both the Cup of China and the NHK Trophy while Czisny, a student at Bowling Green State University, was third at Skate Canada and fourth at Cup of Russia.

Beatrisa Liang, who placed 10th at last year’s World Championships, could also be in the mix despite finishing only sixth at 2009 Skate Canada and fifth at Trophee Eric Bompard. She placed fourth at the 2007 U.S. Championships and took fifth in 2008.

Former World and U.S. Champion Kimmie Meissner (Bel Air, Md.) and 2007 U.S. silver medalist Emily Hughes (Great Neck, N.Y.) withdrew from the competition because of injuries. Both were members of the 2006 Olympic team, finishing sixth and seventh respectively.

With Hughes and Meissner out, several newcomers are poised to take the spotlight, including 2008 U.S. Junior Champion Alexe Gilles and 2008 Junior Grand Prix Champion Becky Bereswill. Angela Maxwell, reigning junior silver medalist, and Kristine Musademba, who won her two JGP events, are also making their senior debut in Cleveland.

The ladies’ championship short program is Thursday with the championship free skate Saturday.

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