Ashley Wagner doesn’t believe there is a clear favorite going into this year’s U.S. Figure Skating National Championships, and it’s a nice thought.
It also might not be entirely accurate, because many would argue that Wagner herself is the favorite to win a fourth national title this weekend in Kansas City, Missouri. She is the reigning world silver medalist and the winner of this year’s Skate America competition, and despite failing to make the Grand Prix Final after a sixth-place performance at the Cup of China, Wagner feels she’s paced herself well in training to prepare.
“Usually I go into nationals somewhat in a panic, but I feel like I really have my head wrapped around it mentality going in,” said Wagner, 25. “Physically I’m going to be at the point I need to be for this, and I think my training will back me up.”
Wagner’s finish at the Cup of China was her worst in 25 grand prix starts. She’s used the two months since then, she said, to go back to the drawing board with some of her training for the second half of the season. In order to help with the problem of under-rotated jumps that crept up again in China, she found a way to work on jumps in such a way that would increase her quick-twitch motion.
She also wanted to address the question of why her long program, skating to “Exogenesis: Symphony Part 3” by Muse, was more difficult from an endurance standpoint than in years past.
“I sat down and looked at it and the program doesn’t stop, it builds and builds and I’m expending all this energy all the way to the end,” she said. “I looked back at past years and I always had some choreographed moments for feeling and emotion, and I would stop and have a break. So I had to find a way to train myself in a way that would build my endurance, and it was just training the second half over and over. I’ve been focusing on much longer sections.”
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Now, Wagner heads a field that includes reigning national champion Gracie Gold, who struggled throughout the fall season, but not 2016 U.S. runner-up Polina Edmunds, who officially withdrew earlier in the week because of a bruised right foot that has left her unable to compete this season.
No matter who is or isn’t skating, however, Wagner said her biggest task is to compete against herself.
“I’m usually my own worst enemy at nationals,” she said. “Thinking about everyone else isn’t going to help me.”
Gold and Wagner have combined to win the last five titles, with Wagner’s most recent title coming in 2015. She finished third in 2016.
Wagner said recently that she’s hoping to not just make it four national championships, but five.
“I would love to round out my career with five titles,” she said. “That’s my goal. I’m on a mission to achieve that.”
Not that she sees her career ending anytime soon. Wagner agreed that she’s been more on top of her game in the last year than at any point in her career.
“China was my first bad competition in a while, and even though the score wasn’t what I wanted, it wasn’t even that bad,” she said. “Going into nationals it’s my umpteenth thousandth nationals, and I'm at a point where I can look at it and, absolutely it’s one of the most intimidating beasts of a competition any athlete has to go though. But I know what I need to do and how I need to approach it, and if I go into it with my mission and goal in mind, that’s all I need to worry about.”
With a top-three finish at nationals, Wagner will make the world team and will have the chance to match or improve upon her silver-medal finish last year, when she became the first American woman to earn a spot on the podium at either the world championships or Olympic Winter Games in 10 years. Beyond that, her goal is to make the Olympic team in 2018 for a second time and compete in PyeongChang.
Even if that happens, however, Wagner isn’t ruling out continuing to skate beyond 2018.
“My mentality going into this Olympic season is I won’t retire,” she said. “That puts so much pressure to make it a dream season of all seasons. (Coach) Rafael Arutyunyan has added this end-of-career boost, and if I still have something left to give, by all means I’m going to keep skating because that’s how crazy I am about this sport.
“I don’t even want to be around long enough to see my career dwindle out. I’ll know when the time comes, but I’m not looking to retire.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.