By Brandon Penny | Oct. 22, 2016, 12:45 a.m. (ET)
Ashley Wagner competes in the ladies' short program at 2016 Progressive Skate America on Oct. 21, 2016 in Hoffman Estates, Ill.


HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. -- It’s amazing what a medal can do for one’s self-confidence.

Ashley Wagner was a different athlete when she stepped onto the ice for the ladies’ short program at the 2016 Skate America Friday night in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. She debuted her new “Sweet Dreams” short program with no major errors and earned a 69.50, the top score of the night.

Mai Mihara of Japan was second with 65.75 in her grand prix debut, and Gracie Gold third at 64.87.

“I felt so calm and confident going out onto that ice and I didn’t even go over to (coach Rafael Arutunian),” Wagner said of her new self. “Usually he jokes that I come over and I pray with him, and I didn’t have to go pray with him today. I knew what I was going to do.”

The first grand prix of the figure skating season, Skate America also marks Wagner’s first major competition since her historic performance at last season’s world championships in Boston, where she won the silver medal and broke a 10-year drought for U.S. women at the event.

That feat provided her with inspiration, motivation and confidence abound. 

“I think I really capitalized on the momentum going into the summer, and it inspired me to train even harder than I had been because it showed me that my training got me onto that podium,” she said.

Now in her 10th season competing at the senior level, Wagner’s performance in Boston helped her realize, at long last, that she is capable of standing among the top women in the world. Better yet, it helped confirm her long-term goal of standing on the Olympic podium is within reach.

“It made it a realistic goal to get onto the Olympic podium and made it so that I could almost taste it,” Wagner said. “That’s the whole reason that I’m skating, so I think that Olympic podium is definitely my goal at this point.”

The road to the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games marks Wagner’s third Olympic cycle. She just missed the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, finishing third at nationals that season when the U.S. could only send two women. Four years later, Wagner made the Sochi team (though not without controversy – she was chosen over Mirai Nagasu, who finished higher than her at nationals) and earned team bronze and finished seventh in the ladies’ event.

So how is that this 25-year-old is continuing to improve in a sport that traditionally favors teenagers?

“Age is just a number,” she quipped, answering a question she has received for several years.

Aside from that, her answer was threefold:

First, she has other skaters to thank for allowing her to slip through the cracks in her early days as as senior skater.

“I’m very lucky in that I came up at a time where I was overshadowed by Mirai Nagasu, Caroline Zhang and the younger American skaters, and they kind of took the spotlight as I was coming up, so I didn’t have that American media swallowing me whole at a young age.

“That gave me a little bit of longevity. I didn’t get burned out at a young age.”

Second, she has stayed relatively injury-free. (Though she did reveal Friday night that she suffered a torn quad just one month prior to worlds in Boston. She recovered in time to have two weeks of training before claiming her silver medal.)

Third, she credits coach Arutunian, with whom she began working in 2013.

“I love skating, I always will, but now I’m so interested in it again,” she explained. “He’s teaching me so many different techniques and I’m understanding a whole new side of it, so every day I learn something new and it’s keeping me fresh and invested and I think that’s definitely helping.”

Gracie Gold Begins Her Comeback

For Gracie Gold, motivation was a little harder to come by this past summer. In fact, her story could not be more different from Wagner’s. She entered the world championships as a favorite to medal. Her career trajectory was literally leading up to it – she had finished sixth, then fifth, then fourth in the years prior. Plus, she was competing in her birthplace.

Gold lived up to the hype at first, leading the competition by more than two points after the short program, but mistakes in her free skate meant she would finish fourth, which left her contemplating her future in the sport. At the time, she said she was “really embarrassed and really ashamed” and felt sorry for letting her country down.

“No one else felt the intense shame that I felt; but it was just so internal that I had trouble getting back out there,” Gold said on Friday.

She revealed earlier this month that she even contemplated skipping this season’s grand prix series, saying she needed time to find joy in the sport again.

“I just had trouble getting going and getting my feet under me for some reason,” she said.

In addition to recovering from worlds, Gold suffered this summer from loneliness. Her twin sister Carly announced her retirement in July and Gold now finds herself with little to no company during her training sessions at Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California.

“When the (Los Angeles Kings) are out in the morning, it’s just me and an empty multimillion dollar facility. (Coach Frank Carroll) asked if it’s sad, and the lights aren’t even on. I’m like, ‘Well it’s not awesome, but you have to get the work done.’”

It took a few more months than she would have liked, but Gold did find the motivation to train for this season and to compete at the first grand prix of the series. She fell on her triple flip on Friday, but had an otherwise solid short program that resulted in third place.

“As soon as I got the momentum going, I’ve been feeling really excellent,” she said of her offseason training.

A year ago, Gold proclaimed that anything short of a medal at worlds would be disappointing. This time around, she’s taking a different approach.

“This year, I’m just not really deciding anything, I guess,” the 21-year-old said. “I’m taking it step by step.”