CLEVELAND -- The women's field is so wide open this year, a surprise was almost impossible.
Alissa Czisny managed to pull it off, though.
Czisny overcame her maddening inconsistency -- for one night, at least -- and let her considerable talent shine Thursday, winning the short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships over all those highly touted up-and-comers.
Her score of 65.75 was more than seven points better than her previous personal best, and gives her a five-point lead over reigning world junior champion Rachael Flatt going into the free skate Saturday.
"I've done a lot of work so I expected to do well," Czisny said, "but I'm really happy to have skated that well."
Flatt scored 60.19 points, followed by Caroline Zhang, who won the world junior title in 2007. Defending champion Mirai Nagasu hit the boards on the landing of her opening triple lutz, dropping her to a disappointing sixth place.
It was a day for big surprises Thursday -- everywhere in ice dance, that is.
In pairs, Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett, scored a major upset with their win in the short program. Only reunited in June after a brief partnership two years ago, they skated flawlessly to beat defending champions Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker and veterans Rena Inoue and John Baldwin.
But the three couples are within four-tenths of each other, meaning the free skate will be a winner takes all affair.
"We weren't really expecting any results, we just wanted to come and skate solid programs," said the 24-year-old Barrett, who still looked dazed after they left the ice. "I'm not sure it's really sunk in yet."
Meryl Davis and Charlie White extended their lead in ice dance, as expected, with a rollicking Roaring '20s number in the original dance. There's only one other team in the country that's better than these two, and Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto are back home while Agosto recovers from a back injury.
Czisny has long been considered one of the most talented skaters in the United States. She skates with the elegance of royalty, with beautiful lines and a smoothness that hides the difficulty of the sport. She almost seems to float across the ice when really her blades are carving it with the precision of a diamond cutter.
But she has a long history of crumbling under the pressure -- especially in the short program, where skaters have a required to-do list. This is the 21-year-old's eighth senior nationals, but she has just one medal to show for the trips. And that bronze she won in 2007? She followed with a ninth-place debacle last year.
"Last year didn't go so well," Czisny said. "After nationals, I took some time off. After I looked back and decided I still wanted to skate, I decided to make some changes and enjoy skating instead of worrying about the outcome."
Czisny has trained for years with Julie Berlin, but they brought in Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano and his longtime coach, Linda Leaver. While Boitano and Leaver spend some time with Czisny at both her base in Detroit and theirs in California, Boitano has become more of a sounding board, helping Czisny to see the promise that everyone else always had.
"I thought she is gorgeous and has so much possibility, just awesome," Boitano said. "And it made me angry [for] all the times she should have been able to pull it out. ... We told her, `You can do this, you're ready to do this. It's just that you need to know you can do it.'"
That's easy to hear, but much harder to believe. There were signs earlier this season, though, that Czisny might finally be ready to produce results that matched her talent. She won at Nebelhorn Trophy, and took the bronze medal at Skate Canada.
Because of her spotty past, though, all the talk before nationals was about Flatt, Zhang, Nagasu and last year's bronze medalist, Ashley Wagner.
But Czisny commanded everyone's attention the moment she stepped on the ice. Dressed in a gorgeous white dress with a crystal, feather-like pattern and light blue accents, she looked majestic -- appropriate, considering she was skating to "The Swan." She opened with a triple lutz-double toe combination and followed with an effortless triple flip.
It was her spins, though, that really stood out. She displayed amazing flexibility, bending her body into positions a yoga master wouldn't try and doing it while whirling at top speed. Most impressive? She stays in one spot, while most of the other skaters traveled enough to get frequent flier miles.
"She should be so proud she did this in the short program," Boitano said. "Can she do it in the long program? I don't know. It's all a learning process, and it doesn't happen overnight."
Flatt's performance to "Moon River" was more workmanlike. She was pleasing to watch and didn't make any mistakes, but she didn't do anything that stood out, either. She also did a triple-double combination, and her solo triple lutz was nice.
"I think I did pretty well in the program, but it wasn't my best," Flatt said.