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Ashley Wagner And Adam Rippon Credit Choreographer With Success As Skating Season Commences

By Stuart Lieberman | Oct. 29, 2015, 6:19 p.m. (ET)

Nadia Kanaeva, Ashley Wagner and Rafael Arutyunyan celebrate Wagner's scores during the ladies free skate at the 2015 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 24, 2015 in Greensboro, N.C.

Defending U.S. women’s figure skating champion and 2014 Olympian Ashley Wagner, and last season’s U.S. men’s runner-up Adam Rippon, have outlined specific targets for themselves for their 2015-16 seasons, which begin Friday at Skate Canada International, the second event of the 2015 ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series.

“This season, I’m at the point in my career where it’s either deliver or don’t,” Wagner, 24, said. “This year is mostly for me to get my head on straight and lined up in a good spot going into the next couple of seasons to show that technically I can compete with the younger girls.”

As Wagner pushes to stay in the spotlight, Rippon, 25, wants to crank it up a notch to get there.

“I want to pick up where I left last year, having had my breakthrough performance at nationals,” Rippon said. “I want to be the national champion heading into worlds in Boston, and beyond that, I’d like to have my two personal-best skates in Boston.”

Wagner and Rippon are among the five U.S. figure skaters who train under coach Rafael Arutyunyan and assistant coach Nadia Kanaeva, along with Hannah Miller, Nathan Chen and Olivia Serafini.

Working with Arutyunyan, who oversees all technical elements, Kanaeva has been integral to Wagner and Rippon’s recent successes. Not only does she assist in cleaning up the choreography of their programs but she also coaches their jumps, spins and footwork.

Kanaeva has been skating herself since she was 3. She was a member of the Russian national team for six years at the novice and junior levels and was the 1996 world junior bronze medalist. But after suffering from back injuries at 16, she hung up her skates, slowly working her way into coaching in Moscow.

At 22, she joined Arutyunyan’s coaching team in the United States, where she worked with the United States’ Michelle Kwan, Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi, Canada’s Jeffrey Buttle and, later on, Mao Asada, a two-time Japanese national champion and 2008 world champion while under her wing.

The last few years, Kanaeva has been seen embracing Wagner and Rippon in the kiss and cry area.

“My approach is different for each skater because we’re all humans and all have different body types,” Kanaeva said. “It’s a tough sport compared to others because you train very hard and small mistakes can cost you a gold medal.”

Nadia Kanaeva, Adam Rippon and Rafael Arutyunyan watch for Rippon's scores in the men's free skate at the 2015 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 25, 2015 in Greensboro, N.C.

Her strict coaching methods intimidated Wagner at first, but Wagner quickly saw success on the ice and learned to love Kanaeva’s kind-hearted character off it.

“Nadia has played a huge role in my skating career,” Wagner said. “Before coming to Raf’s team, I was really just focused on getting through programs, and I didn’t look that much into the skating side of things.

“She worked with me every single day on skating skills, choreography, footwork and spins. She’s really helped me get the total package. She knows exactly what she wants from me.”

Wagner’s coming off a roller-coaster season highlighted by a record-breaking 221.02 score at nationals, where she became the first U.S. senior women’s figure skater to win a third national title since Kwan did so in 1999. (Kwan ended with nine.)

However, Wagner, the reigning Skate Canada silver medalist, finished a disappointing fifth at the world championships last season.

“This sport is so crazy,” Wagner said. “I think I learned a lot from last season. I definitely gained a lot from the highs, but also I gained just as much from the lows. Going into this season, I’m trying to use those memories as tools to push me, teach me and to remind myself of how I want to feel after a competition.

The veteran skater has kept her same long program from last season in order to perfect her triple-triple combinations, and she’ll skate to a samba in her short program, which involves new steps that have taken some getting used to.

But that’s what Kanaeva’s there for.

Her strict, and sometimes pushy, detail-oriented coaching style will help with the steps to create those potentially golden moments. 

“She stays on top of me to make sure I don’t let any of the choreography slip through the cracks,” Wagner said. “She holds me accountable, which really pushes me. She’s the one who makes sure I’m polished and in-shape to be ready to be sent out to these competitions.”

Kanaeva said Rippon, meanwhile, reminds her of Canada’s Toller Cranston, a bronze medalist at the Innsbruck 1976 Olympic Winter Games.

She constantly calls him a “painter on the ice,” and she was able to add color to his brush last year when he was running on empty.

“Last year, when I didn’t make the Olympic team, I was having a lot of doubts about what I should do,” Rippon said. “Nadia went to my first event with me last fall when the season started. We went to Finland together, and she just was incredibly positive and was more than a coach to me at that event, she was my friend. She was there to support me and make sure that I did my job, but she was also there to support me and make sure that I was on my way to get my confidence back.”

Rippon, eighth at last season’s world championships, will try to land a clean quad Lutz — four rotations in the air in a fraction of a second — at Skate Canada, a feat no skater has successfully landed at worlds.

“It’s a gutsy move, and I wanted to put it in a gutsy spot,” he said. “I thought it would be a gutsy move to put it right in the middle of the ice, right where all the judges are.”

The placement nicely resembles Rippon’s persona.

He’s a free spirit, always looking to bring new twists to Kanaeva’s coaching, which ensure each step and push has a specific intention, adding an effortless quality to his performances.

And if all goes well this season, Rippon will be effortlessly painting the Boston ice next spring.

Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Ashley Wagner

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