Ashley Wagner is not entering this season with the mindset that she is the skater to beat. Instead, the reigning U.S. champion is setting out to prove that what happened last season wasn’t a fluke.
Since 2005, when Michelle Kwan won her ninth and final U.S. title, no American woman has been able to win back-to-back national crowns. Wagner, 21, who claimed her first U.S. championship back in January in San Jose, Calif., is seeking to end that statistic by defending her title at nationals this January in Omaha, Neb.
“I don’t want to be one of those girls,” Wagner said. “I really want to be able to prove that I am able to have two successful seasons.”
What she said will help put together back-to-back success is this attitude: “I’m not going to skate to avoid losing. I’m going to skate to win.”
Wagner, the woman who declared to icenetwork.com before nationals last season, “It's my nationals to lose,” isn’t being so brash this time around even though she is the defending champion.
“This is going to be one of my hardest seasons yet,” Wagner said. “Last year was so successful for me and I want to keep on that upward slope. I’m kind of approaching this season as I really do need to prove myself. I haven’t really proven anything. All I’ve proven is that I’ve had one good season.”
Wagner is selling herself a bit short. Yes, she had “one good season” when she won nationals and the Four Continents Championships title and she was the highest U.S. woman finisher at the World Championships, in fourth place, since 2007. But she is also one of the more experienced U.S. women skaters in the mix as the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games approach.
And she is one of the top-ranked women in the world as she enters her first Grand Prix event of the season, the 2012 Hilton HHonors Skate America competition Oct. 19-21 in Kent, Wash. The only woman in the field who placed higher than Wagner at worlds is Russia’s Alena Leonova, the world silver medalist. Just last week, Wagner won the Japan Open, a warm-up event in which she competed only her free skate, but still it was a promising sign that she is continuing her roll of strong results.
Wagner made a big change last season when she uprooted from Delaware to train in California with John Nicks, a coach who has guided numerous Olympians, including 2006 silver medalist Sasha Cohen as well as pairs skaters Jenni Meno and Todd Sand and Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner.
Nicks, who is 83, has worked with many skaters over the years but not many who have come to California on their own. Wagner packed up and moved into an apartment while her parents remain on the East Coast.
“She’s really been handling things well by herself,” he said. “Most of my other students have been here with some sort of support. It’s very impressive.”
But the move paid off with results. She said that Nicks has helped her calm her competition jitters, adding, “I had the goods; I just didn’t know how to deliver them.
“It was mostly about controlling her energy,” Nicks said. “She just has so much of it. I had to teach her that there is a place for speed and a place for elegance in the programs.”
In the back of Wagner’s mind is Sochi. She came ever so close to realizing her Olympic dream back in 2010 but missed a trip to Vancouver by placing third at nationals. She was second in the free skate, but her fourth-place showing in the short program cost her a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team. But she is doing her best, even though the Winter Games in Sochi will begin a little more than a year from now, to focus on each event leading up to that moment. As she put it, she is taking “baby steps” toward that ultimate goal. She added that she “can’t work as efficiently” if she is looking too far ahead.
“My philosophy has changed over the last couple of years,” Wagner said. “I’ve really learned to take it one step at a time.”
Although she has been a senior-level competitor since 2008 and has competed in nine Grand Prix events, this will mark her first trip to Skate America — the only Grand Prix on U.S. soil and the event where the top U.S. skaters compete. In a sense, her arrival at this event is a public showing that she has officially arrived.
Joining Wagner at Skate America in the women’s event are Rachael Flatt, the U.S. champion and Olympic Team member in 2010, and Christina Gao, who placed fifth at the 2012 U.S. Championships. The U.S. men’s competitors are 2010 Olympian Jeremy Abbott, Douglas Razzano and Armin Mahbanoozadeh, who replaces 2010 Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek (groin injury).
Competing in pairs are Caydee Denney, a 2010 Olympian who is in her second season skating with John Coughlin, Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir and Gretchen Donlan and Andrew Speroff. Ice dancing features 2011 world champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, Lynn Kriengkrairut and Logan Giulietti-Schmitt and Anastasia Cannuscio and Colin McManus.
Wagner joked that her Skate America debut will help her complete the Grand Prix circuit, as she has competed in all of the other major international events before. On a more serious note, if she does place well at Skate America and at Trophée Eric Bompard in Paris, Nov. 16-18, she will qualify for the Grand Prix Final, which takes place in — where else? — Sochi.
“That would be the icing on the cake for me,” Wagner said.
Wagner made her breakthrough to the top last season in part for her stunning portrayal of the lead character from the movie, “Black Swan.” With that season behind her, it was somewhat difficult to find another role that could take her skating one level higher. But she ultimately chose to perform to music from “The Red Violin” for her short program and to “Samson and Delilah” for her free skate.
Wagner said she had always hoped to perform to “Samson and Delilah” as an Olympic-year program, but after watching Canada’s Joannie Rochette skate such a riveting routine to that music back in 2010, it would be hard to recreate that magic in the Winter Games. Rochette used that program to earn the bronze medal in Vancouver. After two months of deliberating, she chose “Samson and Delilah” and has enjoyed playing the role of the “femme fatale.”
In fact, Wagner made a point of watching Rochette perform each night while they both toured with the 2012 edition of Stars on Ice in Canada, crediting the skater with helping improve her own artistic side.
“She really casts a spell with her skating,” Wagner said of Rochette. “I’d try to observe and learn from what she was doing and put that into my own skating.”
Just being on the ice on a daily basis with the likes of four-time world champion Kurt Browning and Olympic bronze medalist Jeffrey Buttle made Wagner concentrate more on her own skating skills and her interaction with the audience each night.
Next month, she will perform alongside of many Olympians and world medalists at a cancer benefit show Scott Hamilton organizes in Cleveland. In honor of his 13th show, Hamilton invited all 13 U.S. Olympic gold medalist figure skaters — from Dick Button to Peggy Fleming to Lysacek — to be honored at the event. Wagner will be there as one of the performers.
Hamilton referred to Wagner as one of the “newbies” in his show since she will be making her debut in that event. But before that, she will make her Skate America debut, and she hopes to be an Olympic newbie a little more than a year from now in Sochi.
Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.