Ashley Wagner likely deciding factor in U.S. figure skating’s quest for team medal


(Ivan Sekretarev/Associated Press)

SOCHI, Russia — Alexandria’s Ashley Wagner proved herself a gritty competitor after narrowly missing the cut for the 2010 Olympics, going on to win two U.S. championships and rising to No. 4 in the world rankings. But her mettle was called into question amid a nerve-stricken performance at last month’s U.S championships in Boston, where she fell twice and finished fourth.

Here at the Sochi Olympics, it looks increasingly as if the full weight of the United States clinching a spot in the medal round of figure’s skating team event will land on Wagner’s shoulders.

Wagner, 22, was announced Friday morning as the U.S. team’s choice to perform her short program when the competition in the team event resumes Saturday at the Iceberg Skating Palace, after the Sochi Games pauses for the Opening Ceremonies. The squad’s strongest performers, reigning ice dance champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, have been tapped to perform their short.

With the United States locked in a three-way tie with Germany and France for fifth place in the 10-country competition, the pressure couldn’t be greater on Wagner. Only the five top-scoring countries advance to Sunday’s medal round, in which each will choose a man, woman, pair and ice-dance couple to perform their long programs.

But it’s no certainty that the U.S. squad will make it that far following Jeremy Abbott’s error-riddled short program (scored seventh among 10) and Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir’s shaky follow-up (fifth) in pairs on Thursday. Their combined scores resulted in just 10 points for the United States. Russia leads with 19 points (finishing first in the pairs short, second in men’s); followed by Canada, with 17; and China, with 15.

In the case of a tie for fifth after Saturday’s conclusion of the short programs in all four disciplines, the tying countries will advance.

The team event short dance will kick off Saturday’s schedule at 6:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m. Eastern time). Given Davis and White’s sterling international results, they’re expected to finish first or second. A first-place finish (worth 10 points), would double the U.S. score and should get the squad safely among the top five.

The women’s short program will conclude the first phase of the competition (8:10 p.m., 11:10 a.m Eastern.). So if the United States is on the cusp of elimination, it will be up to Wagner to clinch a top-five finish for the team. Wagner’s short program, a bewitching routine set to Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” has been her strength this season.

Assuming the Americans advance to Sunday’s medal round, their pairs entry for the free skate will be announced Saturday at 9:40 p.m. (12:40 p.m.), shortly before the skaters take the ice. Those tapped for Sunday’s remaining free skates will be announced that morning. The expected lineup: Gracie Gold, 18 (women’s); Jason Brown, 19 (men’s) and Davis and White (dance).

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