By Brandon Penny | Jan. 04, 2018, 3:08 a.m. (ET)
Ashley Wagner and her coach Rafael Arutunian react in the kiss and cry after the women's short program at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 3, 2018 in San Jose, Calif.

 

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Ashley Wagner has said it year after year: She loves to be the underdog.

But this year she may have taken that mindset a little too seriously.

The 2014 Olympian and three-time national champion is famous for performing just how she needs to in her short program before skating a strong free skate to give her the finish and overall placement necessary to achieve her goals.

In fact, Wagner has improved her placement from the short to the long in six of the last nine national championships. She also vaulted from fourth to second at the 2016 world championships, when she won the first U.S. women’s medal in 10 years. But at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Wednesday night, Wagner dug a hole deeper than ideal, landing in fifth following the short.

Only three women will be named to the 2018 U.S. Olympic Figure Skating following Friday’s free skate and, while the selection is based on performances over the past two seasons, Wagner knows that she cannot rest on her laurels and a spot on the podium at the SAP Center may be crucial to earning her spot on the team headed to PyeongChang.

“Going into this long program, I’m not banking on anything other than what I put out on Friday,” she said.

Skating to the “Hip Hip Chin Chin” program that earned her world silver two seasons ago, Wagner earned a score of 65.94. It was her highest short program score of the season and a performance she was proud of, but it did not rival the record 73.79 earned by leader Bradie Tennell. 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu is close behind in second (73.09), while Wagner is still several points behind third-place finisher Karen Chen’s 69.48. Angela Wang is in fourth with a 67.00.

“I am the kind of skater where my main focus going into the short program is to not get too far behind,” Wagner said. “I know my strengths, I know my weaknesses and that was a solid showing. This program has been a nightmare for me this entire international season, so it was a huge mental hurdle today. I went out and I definitely paced myself, but the second half is where I’ve been losing silly points – so to go out there, skate solid, be able to finish those jumps the way that I know I can, I’m happy. I’m a long program skater and that’s where I make my money, so not too far behind and I know what I need to do.”

And if anyone could do it, it’s Wagner: At the 2009 U.S. championships, she was 12th in the short program before winning the free and finishing fourth overall.

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Going into Friday, all eyes will be on the 19-year-old Tennell who only entered Olympic conversations two months ago with a surprise bronze at Skate America, but they will equally be on the 26-year-old Wagner who is debuting her “La La Land” program in what is perhaps the biggest moment of her past four seasons.

Wagner trained the much-anticipated program all summer, then switched to her “Moulin Rouge” free skate that won her world silver in 2016 before her first competition in mid-October. On Dec. 4 – days after withdrawing mid-program from Skate America due to a topical ankle infection – she announced her switch back to “La La Land” and that it would debut in San Jose.

“It’s an interesting position to be in, for sure, but this entire season I’ve gone out and I’ve skated ‘Moulin Rouge’ and I have been so painfully aware during these programs, so honestly having something to think about other than, here comes this triple loop that I’ve done the exact same way 10 million times, something fresh is going to be a nice, welcome distraction,” Wagner explained. “So I’m not afraid of it being new, I’m really welcoming that.”

The veteran alluded to the fact that she might also change her short program, should she make the Olympic team, saying that “Hip Hip Chin Chin” may have seen its last legs and is feeling old, especially compared to a new program as “fresh” as “La La Land.”

While Wagner intends to leave her Olympic chances up to how she performs on Friday, her status in the qualification process is already a solid one. U.S. Figure Skating’s Olympic procedures list three tiers of events the selection committee considers. The first tier includes the 2018 U.S. championships, the 2017 world championships where Wagner was the second-best American in seventh and the 2017 Grand Prix Final that no U.S. women qualified for. Second tier includes the 2017 grand prix events; Wagner was third at Skate Canada (though seventh in the short program there) and withdrew from Skate America. Her only Tier 3 event was the 2017 U.S. championships, where she was second.

Regardless of how the week ends, Wagner is content with her career, which is now in its 11th year on the senior skating scene.

“I think the really special thing about the point that I’m at in my career now is that I have so much to look back on and enjoy, and obviously I’m going to fight tooth and nail because I want to be on the Olympic team, but whatever happens at this event I have a career that I’ve been so blessed to experience and it’s a nice position to be in.”