Ashley Wagner is a storyteller on ice. She skates narratives with a beginning, middle and end punctuated by jumps, spins and footwork.
“Classic figure skating is a sport first, but you are disguising this amazing feat by telling a story,” Wagner said. “You’re taking something that is very technical and making it beautiful.
I love for people to be able to identify with exactly what I’m trying to tell them.”
Last year Wagner told a tale of perseverance paying off. She was the come-from-behind silver medalist at the World Figure Skating Championships in Boston, ending a 10-year podium drought for the U.S. women and confidently taking charge when teammate Gracie Gold faltered.
Going into next week’s worlds in Helsinki, Wagner again has her own stories to tell, but the plot has thickened.
Whether or not Team USA can send three women singles skaters to the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games depends on how well Wagner and her teammates fare.
It’s as simple as A-B-C, 1-2-3.
A is for Ashley Wagner, B is for Mariah Bell and C is for Karen Chen, the newly-minted U.S. national champion.
Then it’s a matter of counting. The placements of the top two U.S. finishers must add up to 13 or under to give Team USA three Olympic berths next year. That means if Wagner equals her 2016 finish and gets second, one of her teammates must finish 11th or better.
“I know this is the question that I’m going to be hearing a million times until we know whether or not we get the spots,” Wagner said. “We’re sending two rookies in, but I feel like I have the experience. I know how to handle the pressure of the world championships.”
After all, this is her seventh appearance at worlds. Wagner, 25, placed 16th in 2008, then did not return to the world stage until 2012, when she was fourth. She was fifth the following year, seventh in 2014 immediately after the Sochi Olympic Winter Games, and then fifth again in 2015 before her breakthrough in Boston.
“I’ve been on a team that lost the three spots, I’ve been on a team that then gained them back and I’ve been on a team that maintained them,” Wagner said. “At this point, my job is to go out and do what I’ve been practicing. If I’m focusing on the other girls, I’m not really setting myself up for success.”
She knows that if she skates well, “the pressure’s off” Bell, 20, and Chen, 17.
As someone who has thrived as an underdog, Wagner said she can’t take her role as reigning silver medalist for granted.
“I have to prove myself all over again,” she said. “I don’t think the world medal is going to do me any favors.”
Yet Tara Lipinski, the 1997 world champion and 1998 Olympic gold medalist, said Wagner can draw confidence from the medal.
“When you go into that event you don’t feel as much pressure because you remember, ‘I’ve done this once before, I can do it again,’” said Lipinski, now an NBC analyst.
However, it will be hard to dethrone defending champion Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia, who is so consistent she has seemed invincible.
“I think, technically, she is one of the strongest athletes that we have ever seen in this sport and I really admire what she is bringing to ladies’ skating,” Wagner said.
While Lipinski conceded that “technically it’s going to be difficult for her to compete with the Russians,” she called Wagner a “true competitor.”
“Ashley Wagner is so gutsy and so spunky and wants it so badly,” Lipinski said. “She’s probably feeling a lot of those expectations and pressures to hold up the U.S. team.
“She’s going to bring it with everything she has. The one area she excels in is the artistic score. She is experienced, she’s been around a long time and she knows how to sell a program, but technically the jumps need to be there.”
Wagner goes into this world championships having not competed as much as in the past.
She won Skate America last October, but her sixth-place finish the following month at Cup of China marked her only placement outside the top five in 25 Grand Prix starts spanning 10 years.
“It definitely killed my momentum a bit,” Wagner said.
Because of the poor result, she did not qualify for the Grand Prix Final, but was grateful that it allowed her to concentrate on the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January. A three-time national champion, Wagner placed second behind Chen, and pronounced herself “extremely satisfied” with how the skated.
She then opted to skip the Four Continents Championships, the test event in PyeongChang, to stay in Los Angeles and not only train, but also add layers and complexity to her programs. Mirai Nagasu was the highest U.S. finisher at Four Continents, winning the bronze medal, while Bell was sixth and Chen a disappointing 12th.
“This season I understand some people might not consider it my most successful season,” said Wagner, who was seventh in her lone Olympic appearance in 2014 and won a team bronze medal. “But I have been competing at this elite level for pretty much over a decade and that is … exhausting.
“You look at so many girls who have taken time off after the Olympics and then worked to come back. I have not taken off any time. I have been consistently working and training to get better over the past decade.”
She savored the opportunity to stay home and “catch up.” “Going into the Olympic season, I want to feel like I have my feet underneath me and this season has been exactly what I needed it to be,” Wagner said. “I need to see where I stack up right now and what work I have ahead of me going into 2018.”
She and choreographer Jeffrey Buttle worked on her short program to the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” to add more transitions, redoing the footwork to make it appear less like it did when it was Wagner’s exhibition program.
Short programs have often been her Achilles heel, forcing her to fight back into contention. In Boston, Wagner was brilliant, crediting “preparation, preparation, preparation.”
“The short program is definitely a little bit more intimidating for me,” she said, “just because one mistake can be so catastrophic.”
Also during the training period, Wagner and choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne tweaked her free skate to Exogenesis Symphony, Part 3 (Redemption) by Muse, especially the second half that Wagner said, “looked sloppy and it was driving me crazy.”
She said the story is about “starting off this love that is so pure and innocent, but it’s like a memory… everything was happy and easy, and then slowly I kind of work my way into realizing that everything is going wrong.”
After getting to the point “that you just want to throw everything out and start all over again,” Wagner said, “you know that’s not what life is about. By the time I get to the end of my program, it’s more about me being OK with myself in this whole process and finishing it where I’m OK on my own.”
Wagner already has her eye on the soundtrack to “La La Land” for one of her Olympic programs next season. “I just think I really relate to the movie and the character,” she said. “I think that it is a story that is very similar to my own.”
For years she called herself the “almost girl,” almost making the 2010 Olympic team. She won her first national title in 2012.
While Wagner said people assume she is “mentally tough as nails,” she’s had to work at it.
“I think that I’m just stubborn, and I never like to be considered weak,” Wagner said, “so when I have a bad skate or I fall, I always try to take how I felt in that moment and learn from it, grow from it and then never let that happen again.
“I am at the end of my career. I don’t have time to have any slipups, and I need to be as mentally tough as I possibly can, so every competition that I’m entering, every day I’m on the ice practicing, I’m trying to soak up what I can about my mental attitude and use that for competition.”
She trains with coach Rafael Arutunian at the same Southern California rink with Bell and Nathan Chen, the new U.S. men’s champion whose multitude of quadruple jumps have electrified the sport.
“We’re able to push each other,” Wagner said.
She offered some advice to Bell for her first worlds.
“She said, ‘You want to have really solid training, so when you get there and you’re a little more nervous, you can really rely on that,’” Bell said. “Ashley is so mentally tough and physically strong. Just to be able to be on the ice and see how hard she’s working every day is something I can learn from and is really motivating.”
Wagner never has to struggle to find her own motivation. Skating is “exciting and exhilarating,” she said, “and something that I genuinely want to do.
“I feel like I definitely have more to give and more to do in this sport which is why I’m here and I think that after getting that silver medal last year, that was just kind of a taste of what I think that I can do and that is definitely very motivating for me.”
Wagner even got excited about the world championships by watching “The Bachelor” finale, which was filmed in Finland, and tweeted about it.
But while she’s a fan of the show, she’d never want to be The Bachelorette.
“That would be my absolute worst nightmare,” Wagner said. “I love watching other women be crazy, so that I don’t have to be.”
It’s not her story.