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Alissa Czisny is a comeback kid at 21

January 24, 2009 |  9:42 pm

Czisny2_300CLEVELAND -- The youth movement atop the ranks of U.S. women's figure skating took a break Saturday, when 21-year-old Alissa Czisny won her first title a year after finishing a deflating ninth.

It didn't stop entirely: 16-year-old Rachael Flatt of Del Mar finished second, with 15-year-old Caroline Zhang of Irvine third. Mirai Nagasu of Arcadia, who won the title last year at 14 but was severely hampered by a sore right ankle, couldn't recover from a weak short program and finished fifth.

The U.S. can send only two women to the world championships in March at Staples Center, and those spots were expected to go to Czisny and Flatt. The results at the world championships will determine the number of spots allotted to each country at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

For Czisny, whose long program contained only three clean triple jumps and was ranked only third overall, finishing first was a pleasant surprise that triggered many memories of her struggles. After finishing second in the U.S. junior competition in 2001 she didn't make the podium again at the U.S. championships until her third-place finish in 2007. She finished 15th at the world championships that year, her only previous worlds appearance at the senior level.

"I think I'm finally ready. I think I needed all those years, and I guess it wasn't time until now," Czisny said.

"Throughout the years there's been a lot of disappointment and hard times. It made me a better person and better skater, and I think I've learned a lot about life."

Nagasu cried before she began her program and cried afterward, too. The first time was nerves and the second was joy at completing a competition that was physically and emotionally painful.

"My biggest fear was putting all that practice to waste," she said.

"Just the fact that I was able to defeat, like, the evil side of me was an accomplishment. I'm practicing to push the good side up."

Flatt, though a native of Del Mar, trains in Colorado Springs with a flotilla of coaches led by Tom Zakrajsek and Becky Calvin. She was slow Saturday and her triple flip-triple toe loop combination jump was downgraded by the judges, but the end result left her overwhelmed.

Asked how she felt about competing in the world championships, she broke into a broad smile -- one no longer marred by braces. She got those removed before she came here.

"I'm speechless. I'm thrilled," she said. "I'm just happy to be on the medal stand."

The competition wraps up Sunday, with the men's free skate. Jeremy Abbott is the leader after the short program with 86.40 points, followed by defending champion Evan Lysacek (83.59) and Parker Pennington (76.17). Three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir is seventh, with 70.76 points. Three men will go to the world championships.

-- Helene Elliott

Photo: Alissa Czisny takes a victory lap after winning the gold medal in the women's competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday in Cleveland. Credit: Tony Dejak / Associated Press