ST. PAUL, Minn. – It may have looked as if Polina Edmunds was just going through the motions Friday while doing a practice run-through of her free skate to selections from the “Gone With The Wind” film score.
This one was more of a walk-through, like a director blocking a scene.
Every place a jump was programmed, Edmunds simply popped lightly into the air and came straight down, with no attempt at a rotation. That was in stark contrast to the approach of the other skaters, who practiced executing the jumps the way they want to in Saturday night’s final at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
It was just another part of Edmunds’ game plan, the one she and her coaching team have stuck with during what seems like a long two years since she became an overnight sensation at this event two years ago.
“At competitions, I don’t like to skate my program in practice,” she said. “I like to focus on the choreography aspect, and I don’t like to peak at the wrong moment.”
There was no doubt the high school senior from San Jose had peaked at the right moment Thursday.
A commanding short program performance to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” sent her into the final with a substantial lead – more than seven points – over the two women who have dominated U.S. skating the past several seasons, Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner.
Both Gold, the 2014 champion, and Wagner, the defending and three-time champion, made major mistakes on their first jumping pass, putting Edmunds in position to win her first senior U.S. title.
“I know they are playing up the Ashley-Gracie rivalry, which is very much still alive,” Gold said after nailing jump after jump in her practice run through.
“But I never counted Polina out. She was second (at nationals) in the Olympic year. How do you write off somebody like that?”
Few words of any sort had been written about Edmunds before the 2014 Championships (a quasi Olympic trials). It was her first senior level competition, and she went from “who” to “wow!” in two skates that put her on the Olympic team with Gold and Wagner.
“Polina had an unbelievable rise to the top,” Wagner said.
The hard part was moving forward so those performances would be a career highlight, not the career highlight.
"In 2014 I was 15 years old, so I it was a bit easier than it is now,” she said.
Physical changes linked to puberty turned some of the jumps she once tossed off with youthful insouciance into fraught propositions. She dropped to fourth at last year’s nationals, getting one of the three places on the world team partly because the third-place finisher, Fremont’s Karen Chen, did not meet the minimum age requirement.
Edmunds’ unremarkable results in two years on the senior Grand Prix circuit have testified to how a reshaping body was getting the last word over the jump technique her coach of 13 years, David Glynn, had described as perfect in 2014. In two Grand Prix events this season, judges have dinged her for under-rotated jumps a whopping nine times.
That’s when another part of the plan came into play: the will to resist a short-term fix.
“When development happens, how do you keep the technique strong and the jumps strong? You don’t change anything,” Glynn said.
“It’s easy to panic and try something new. You have to be patient - keep doing the jumps and roll with the punches knowing it might not feel quite right today but once your body has settled, they will come back.”
Edmunds has become a lissome 17-year-old with limbs so long Wagner joked “she can stand at center ice and touch the boards on either side with her arms and legs.”
Edmunds evokes memories of Italy’s Carolina Kostner at the same age, when Kostner – eventual world champion and Olympic champion – had the air of a frolicsome fawn. As there had been with Kostner, there is still an unrefined quality to Edmunds’ skating, which drew component scores lower than those of Gold and Wagner in Thursday’s short program.
“They both have long lines and are classically trained in ballet,” Gold said, underscoring the comparison with Kostner. “Polina is very lyrical.”
Gold’s coach, Frank Carroll, had called Edmunds “the future of U.S. women’s skating” in 2014. He sees improvements in Edmunds that have not shown up in results.
“She looks smoother to me,” Carroll said Friday. “You can tell she has worked on her jump landings and flowing out of them better.”
What impresses him most is Edmunds’ competitive consistency.
“She has that Russian ancestry (mother Nina taught skating in Russia before emigrating to the U.S. in 1995) and with that comes a lot of discipline, and you can just see it when she skates. You have the feeling she won’t leave anything out.”
Except in practice.