Elena Pulkinen and Alexis Gagnon’s combined scores might be nearly the same as leader Polina Edmunds’ following Thursday’s senor ladies short program at the U.S. Championships in St. Paul, Minn., but for the two 18 year olds representing the Coyotes Skating Club of Arizona, it meant the fulfillment of lifelong dreams. Never before had they competed on such a stage.
“It felt amazing,” Gagnon said, “It was so incredible, I can’t believe it. I kind of compare it to a really big show, but times 10. I love doing it. It wasn’t my best, but overall I put out what I could. I want to stay focused and push through the week. I love going to that rink every day, training, learning new things and experiences and creating a journey out of it.”
Gagnon enters Saturday’s long program, which begins at 5 p.m. MT, 22nd out of 22 skaters, but she possibly had the widest smile in the Kiss and Cry Area following her 33.24 short. A triple toe loop-double toe turned into a single, and a triple Salchow was downgraded during her rendition to “Vertigogo” and “Baby Elephant Walk,” but it weren’t about the technicalities on this night.
“Just getting out there for the first time in front of the audience was what it was all about,” Gagnon’s coach and choreographer Dawn Piepenbrink-McCosh said. “This was my first time being back from my Nationals since I retired in 1997, so very excited to bring a student back at the senior level.”
Gagnon, who attends Scottsdale Community College, was fourth at Pacific Coast Sections in November to qualify, while Pulkinen was third in the event. Pulkinen said when she was little, her mother influenced her to become involved in team sports to overcome her shyness and figure skating was the sport she became accustomed. She did not seem at all shy Thursday.
“It’s such a dream,” Pulkinen said. “I never thought this day would come, it’s something I worked for my whole skating career, so it’s so nice to see everything’s paid off, but I’m so excited to be here to see all the world-famous athletes I’ve seen on TV, it’s such an honor.”
Pulkinen scored 38.22 points to “Kung Fu Piano: Cello Ascends,” with a downgraded triple toe loop and a triple Salchow-double toe loop that became a single Salchow. She did earn points on an opening layback spin and step sequence, however.
“My short was supposed to be a very emotional program,” Pulkinen said. “It’s supposed to promote pain and recovery, as well, so I really tried to focus on the emotions in that program, but I also focused on the technical, as well. My toe went OK, I stayed on my feet. My Salchow, I popped into a single, which I shouldn’t have done, but I finished pretty strong, with a double Axel. Overall, I’m pretty happy with my performance. That was my first time performing in such a big audience, but in the long program, I’ll be more used to it.”
Pulkinen, whose younger brother Camden competed in the junior men’s draw at Nationals, is a freshman at UCLA specializing in neuroscience. She added that after this season, while she plans on continuing to skate with the collegiate club team, she will focus more on school.
“Her style is just perfection on ice,” Pulkinen’s coach and choreographer Karen Gesell said. “This was a great moment for her, and she took in that moment and it was everything for her. She’s lovely, just lovely.”
As mentioned, Polina Edmunds is the leader after the short with 70.19 points. Eight points behind her are Gracie Gold, Tyler Pierce and defending champion Ashley Wagner. Mirai Nagasu, who won her only U.S. title in St. Paul eight years ago, is in fifth at 59.64 points.
“I think I did to the best of my ability,” Nagasu said. “My only issue right now is the strength of my landing foot. I definitely hear the audience’s support, and that’s important to me. It’s cold, but I feel like the people are really warm here, so it’s a good balance. It would be amazing to make that (World Championships) team, and there’s a lot of amazing candidates from the U.S. right now. I am a firm believer in karma, when you do good things for people, good things happen to you, but ice skating is one of those unexpected sports. I don’t want to have any expectations for myself.”