Ashley Wagner, three pounds lighter, ‘looks better; she jumps better’

SOCHI, Russia — Alexandria’s Ashley Wagner was back at the practice rink Wednesday, three pounds leaner and better conditioned than she was at last month’s U.S. championships.

Tapped to perform her short program Saturday in the figure skating’s new team event, Wagner conceded it’s essential she get off to a strong start in her Olympic debut here at the 2014 Sochi Games. And she turned in a solid run-through Wednesday that included a triple flip-triple toe combination without a major glitch.

“I need to get my legs underneath me and kind of mentally erase that last competition,” Wagner said, referring to her fourth-place finish at Nationals, where she fell twice during her long program and substituted a triple-double for the triple-triple planned in her short program.

Afterward, her coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, told her point-blank that she’d have a far better chance of completing the difficult jump combination if she lost some weight and trained to physical exhaustion.

“The smaller you are, the easier it is to rotate,” Arutyunyan, making no apology for his blunt assessment. “Condition is condition.”

According the Wagner, Arutyunyan stepped up the demands in practice the last three weeks. Instead of having her do a full run-through of her program, he told her do the second half of her routine two or three times, then do the first half two or three times.

Then I would do the full run-through,” Wagner said, “so I was training on dead legs. My whole issue at Nationals was I got out there and felt like I had no legs. So he said, ‘All right, so we’re going to train you like that.’”

All told, Wagner lost three pounds. But that, combined with the conditioning, is significant in Arutyunyan’s eyes.

“I think she looks better; she jumps better,” he said. “Easier.”

The new Olympic figure-skating team event starts Thursday, the day before Opening Ceremonies, with the pairs and men’s short programs. Two-time U.S. champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir (pairs) and four-time and defending U.S. champion Jeremey Abbott (men) will contest that.

The competition resumes Saturday, with the dance and women’s short programs, followed by the pairs long program. Wagner will compete then, though it won’t be announced until Friday at 10 a.m. The competition concludes with the long programs in the remaining four disciplines Sunday.

The team event, contested for the first time at the Sochi Games, represents the United States’ first chance to claim a figure-skating medal. Ten nations qualified to compete based on their skaters’ international results over the past season.

Under the format, each country will designate one man, one woman, one pair and one dance couple to compete their short programs, with points awarded for each performance. The five countries with the lowest combined totals will be eliminated.

The countries that advance will choose six skaters to perform their long programs on Sunday, granted the option of making substitutions.

Thursday’s announcement all but confirms that Jason Brown, 19, the surprise U.S. silver medalist, will compete his long program set to music from “Riverdance” on the final day of the competition. That represents a significant honor and vote of confidence in Brown’s showmanship. The Illinois teen is among the few male Olympians who doesn’t perform a quadruple jump, but he has consistently won over audiences with his flair for performance—particular in the rousing long program.

Abbott, by contrast, excels in his short program, which includes an impressive quadruple  toe-triple toe combination. The short has been Wagner’s strong suit, as well. Reigning U.S. women’s champion Gracie Gold, 18, is expected to be chosen to perform her long program.

“I think the U.S. has a great opportunity at a medal,” Wagner said. “As Americans, what do we want? We want to bring home the hardware. I think this will be an incredible event to watch. We have so many talented athletes that are participating.”

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