Competing at the ISU World Team Trophy in Tokyo last week, Ashley Wagner gratefully bid the 2016-17 season farewell.
“This season has just been such an uphill battle for me in many ways in my life,” she said. “I haven’t felt very relaxed and free. I haven’t let things happen.”
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Four years ago, a pre-Olympic season brought the Southern California-based figure skater two grand prix titles, a silver medal at the Grand Prix Final and her second U.S. women’s crown. This season has had its moments, including a second Skate America title, but it’s all been, well, taxing.
“I think it was just so astronomically difficult for me because last season, getting that world silver medal was something I always wanted, and part of me knew I was capable of doing it and another part of me never expected it to happen,” Wagner, who will turn 26 next month, said.
“So I went into this season in a totally new mindset, in a way: ‘OK, I have an Olympic (team) medal, I have (three) national titles, I have a world medal, I have enough in my career to be satisfied.’ And then on top of that, this being a pre-Olympic season, in a weird way it’s been an awkward amount of pressure, but it doesn’t count for anything. And so I think I was really fighting to find enough heart.”
Wagner is still shaking her head over her disappointing free skate at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships last month in Helsinki, Finland, particularly a missed triple flip-triple toe loop combination. She placed seventh, five spots lower than her silver-medal finish in 2016.
“It wasn’t a question of whether or not I could do the jumps, I absolutely can, and my triple-triple has been the most solid it’s been my entire life,” she said. “Mentally, something was not really there. That fighting spirit, I just didn’t really have access to. I’m not one for excuses and I don’t want to create any reason why it didn’t happen, it just didn’t happen.”
Fortunately, Wagner is turning a page. For the second time, teammates elected her captain of the U.S. squad at WTT — “I’m incredibly proud and honored,” she said — and her solid short program in Tokyo marked the first time she broke the 70-point mark internationally this season. The U.S. team finished third, continuing a string of medaling in each of the five editions of the event.
Meanwhile, the “Stars on Ice” tour has been a blast, with Wagner enjoying both the group numbers and her star solo to Fitz and the Tantrums’ “HandClap.”
“I’m really picky about figure skating, and I would go and watch this show,” she said. “Jeff Buttle (SOI creative director and 2006 Olympic bronze medalist for Canada) is a genius. I think that it’s super entertaining, the music is fun, the choreography is great, the costumes are amazing. ... It definitely reminds me of the golden years of SOI, when everything was all about the group numbers.”
Looking ahead, Wagner and choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne are bouncing ideas for the Olympic season, which might include a free skate to music from the popular Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling musical “La La Land.” No final decision has been made yet, though: After ditching her “Romeo and Juliet” free skate three weeks before the Sochi Games, Wagner’s resolved to keep her options open for a while.
“(‘La La Land’) is the plan as of now, but I learned my lesson from the last Olympic season, whatever I end up competing has to feel right to me,” she said. “I identify with the story and thought it was so true to who I am as a person and in my career. … I think Shae and I are going to go to the drawing board, see if anything else pops up, but for right now ‘La La Land’ feels like the perfect choice for me.”
The film’s romantic soundtrack couldn’t be more different than this season’s free skate selection, “Exogenesis: Symphony Part 3” by Muse. Wagner likes it that way.
“I love the song Emma Stone sings during her audition (‘The Fools Who Dream’), and that’s the kind of story I want to tell,” she said. “At this point in my career I only have so many long programs left, and I want to skate to music that really speaks to me and helps tell a story. My long program this year was so off the beaten path of what I’ve done — I have no regrets, skating to it helped me expand my skills — but I’m ready to go back to taking on a character and having people recognize the story I’m telling.”
The skater also has no regrets about announcing her probable choice on Instagram back in February.
“Oh, a million skaters are going to use ‘La La Land,’” she laughed. “I just wanted to at least put it in people’s heads I was going to skate to it. … It feels very hopeful, and that’s what I really like.”
The good feeling is catching. With 2016-17 in her rearview mirror, Wagner is confident she’ll reignite the competitive fire that’s propelled her for a decade on the international scene.
“As soon as I was done at worlds, that was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “I just felt so refreshed for the first time in a long time, to feel I was actually working toward the Olympics. I didn’t feel like I was working towards anything this season, and now I feel like I’m going in the right direction.”
Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.