The difference between Ashley Wagner’s bow following her “Moulin Rouge” free skate at the 2016 world championships and at Skate America just a few weeks ago could not be starker.
In Boston, almost two years ago, all of TD Garden shook with joy as Wagner earned the U.S. women their first world medal in 10 years. In late November, a subdued crowd in Lake Placid, New York, sat stoic and stunned: Wagner pulled out mid-routine, done in by a topical ankle infection that had been bothering her in the lead-up to her second grand prix event of this Olympic season.
“I’m out there on the ice and I’m in so much pain,” a tearful Wagner told NBC moments after, having withdrawn from a grand prix event for the first time in her career. “I’m here to be national champion. I’m here to make it onto that Olympic team. At the end of the day, that’s my goal this season, so there’s no point in me going out there and skating a program in pain and injuring myself further.”
This much is clear: This season so far is not what the 26-year-old and three-time U.S. champion had scripted for herself. Instead of arriving in San Jose for the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships – which serve as the final step in the Olympic qualification process for American figure skaters – for a coronation of sorts, Wagner is instead fighting an uphill battle. Her spot is yet to be secured.
“Going into this nationals I’m going to put it all out on the table,” she told reporters last week on a teleconference ahead of the San Jose, California, event. “I haven’t had a good season at all. I’ve been going through a lot on my own in my personal life and it’s intertwined with my skating life. This is it for me: I either make it or break it. I either make it onto the team or I don’t. I’m going in to be national champion. I’m going in to throw it down.”
It’s a position she’s rather used to after over 10 years on the international circuit.
In 2014, after finishing fourth at the U.S. championships, Wagner had to prove herself worthy of being selected for the Sochi Olympic team. Two years later, having stayed in the sport longer than many thought she should, she was a world silver medalist, ending an era of drought that had also seen her thrust into the position as torch bearer for the U.S. women’s program.
This is the story with Wagner: There are always fireworks and it’s never straightforward. There is always drama and perhaps a few tears (either of sadness or joy). But when she puts it all together, she is one of the best figure skaters in the world, and – perhaps – the U.S. team’s greatest hope for a women’s medal in PyeongChang in February, which would be the first since Sasha Cohen in Torino in 2006.
“I only stuck around for another four years to make it to another Olympics. That’s why I’m here,” she told reporters plainly.
That – precisely – is why Wagner dropped another bombshell after her Skate America withdrawal. Having trained a free skate to “La La Land” all summer, she had switched to that aforementioned “Moulin Rouge” long program in mid-October, the same routine that had helped her earn that 2016 world silver. But – she revealed – she was switching back: She would return to her “La La Land” free skate for the U.S. championships, and perform it for the first time with an Olympic spot on the line.
“To others it may seem like a dramatic switch, but for me it was exactly what I needed,” she said. “Sometimes you need to step away to realize exactly what you need. In an Olympic season, it’s really easy to lose sight of what you want and need because of the chaos of it all. For me as an athlete, training (‘Moulin Rouge’) for a third season made it start to feel really stagnant. That was a huge problem for me. I had such an incredible moment at worlds in 2016 and I was trying to re-create that moment. I needed to feel positive and fresh, so it was an easy decision.”
A month earlier, at the beginning of November, Wagner had held court in Times Square at Team USA’s 100 Day Countdown event in Manhattan. PyeongChang was only 100 days away, but little did Wagner know that her road there would have a lot more twists and turns for her to get there.
“I am 26 years old and in figure skating, that’s old as dirt,” Wagner joked on stage in a media Q&A, Lindsey Vonn nodding alongside her. “You know how I feel,” she said, nodding towards Vonn.
“I am competing against girls who were not even alive when I started skating. So that’s my everyday reality. I’m the youngest veteran that there ever was. But I think at the end of the day it’s an advantage: I have this competitive experience … I know what to expect and going into these big events I know how to control myself and handle whatever life throws at me. I think there is a lot to be said for being 26 and living in a 15-year-old’s world.”
Domestically, at least, Wagner is living in a late-teen/early-20-something world: Karen Chen, the reigning U.S. champion, is 18. 2017 U.S. medalist Mariah Bell is 21. Bradie Tennell, the breakout star at Skate America (the same event where Wagner pulled out), is 19.
Mirai Nagasu, who was an Olympian in 2010, is another foe. But she’s still only 24.
As the sport has kept its teenage identity, Wagner has stayed near the top. Four years ago she had to endure an embarrassing nationals, where she fell – literally – to fourth, forcing the selection committee to pick her over Nagasu in a choice that proved controversial in the eyes of many fans and members of the media. She’d like to avoid any similar situation in San Jose, though this year has history on her side: The selection committee now has weighted criteria dating back to the U.S. championships in January 2017 (where Wagner was second), and also includes 2017 worlds (Wagner was seventh) and the 2017 Grand Prix Series (Wagner took third at Skate Canada).
While the selection process eases Wagner’s mind a bit, she is also buoyed by her last-minute program change. It’s something her 2014 self wouldn’t have been able to handle, she says.
“It would have been complete panic,” Wagner said. “That season was chaotic and completely overwhelming. For me, (switching to ‘La La Land’ now) is the most levelheaded decision that I’ve made all season.”
But Wagner still wants to finish on top. She worked with choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne to fine tune her free skate in the time after Skate America, and said she spent over a week out of her skating boots – and off the ice – to completely heal the topical infection that had forced her to pull out in Lake Placid.
“I’m 100-percent healthy,” she said.
She has a new weapon in an old friend, too: Adam Rippon. Long the more successful skater of the two, Wagner has had to sit back and watch Rippon hit his peak this year, a fellow “young veteran” at 28. Rippon won silver at both his grand prix assignments to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, making him a near-lock for the U.S. men’s team.
Both the U.S. women and men will send three athletes to the Olympics in PyeongChang.
“Adam is a huge part of my success,” Wagner said at the 100 Day Countdown event. “I’m very hard-headed. He’s phenomenal at pulling me aside and helping me understand what (shared coach) Raf [Rafael Arutunian] needs and wants. He helps me re-focus and get a plan really going. We’re going through this same insane process. He’s the person who motivates me to get my training done efficiently, so I think we balance each other out really well. Watching Adam and the way that he trains and how smart he trains, that all is really motivating for me.”
What Wagner now has to do is trust the balance between pushing to prove herself once again and trusting her experience. It’s something that is nuanced even as an idea, and then imagine trying to apply it: Here’s an athlete on a thin blade on the ice in front of thousands of people watching – not to mention with her lifelong dream at stake.
“The Olympics is such an incredible dream of mine, but now I know it’s just a competition,” said Wagner, a bronze medalist from the team event in Sochi in 2014. She was seventh in the women’s event.
“It’s no different from the world championships. Instead of turning it into this big beast, I’m focusing on getting my programs prepared so when I get there I can go into battle mode.”
Battle donning glitter, sparkles and a coy smile that figure skating fans have come to recognize from Wagner. She’s done it before and plans to do it again.
“My biggest strength right now in my career is that I realize it’s just figure skating. Once you realize it’s just a sport, you’re kind of set free of it. It takes a lot to get to that point and it takes even more to really believe it, but at the end of the day I know how to prepare myself and know how I want to feel. I owe myself a comfortable, secure night’s rest before they announce that Olympic team. I want to do so in a way I’m proud of.”
No one said that was going to be easy, however.