Alexandria’s Ashley Wagner knows full well that U.S. women’s figure skaters have gone from being a powerhouse in the sport to an occasional punch line. Wagner, in fact, knows the precise moment of the official fall from grace.
Four years ago in Gothenburg, Sweden, Wagner and two U.S. teammates performed poorly at the world championships, costing the United States a precious global championship berth; the U.S. allotment shrank from three to two.
And the American women have failed to earn that berth back over the past three seasons. Wagner hopes that will change in her first world championship appearance this week in Nice, France, since her 16th-place finish in 2008.
“This could be a huge worlds for the U.S. ladies,” Wagner, 20, said. “I was on the team that lost the spot. It’s kind of a personal quest for me; I want to be on the team that gets the spot back.”
Wagner seems perfectly positioned to help author the turnaround. She won her first U.S. title in January, six months after moving to Southern California to train under esteemed coach John Nicks. Last month, she won a gold medal at the Four Continents Championships, defeating Olympic silver medalist Mao Asada. There, she set a personal scoring record and posted the season-best point total (192.41), emerging from the competition a legitimate medal contender in Nice.
“To me it would be a huge accomplishment to get onto the worlds podium,” Wagner said by cellphone from Aliso Viejo, Calif. “That would be an incredible way to top off the season.”
The once-dominant U.S. women haven’t claimed a medal of any kind in the five world championships since 2006, when Baltimore’s Kimmie Meissner won gold and Sasha Cohen got the bronze. That year had marked the 12th straight worlds in which U.S. women had won at least one medal. The reasons given for the decline range from improved international competition, particularly from Asia, to a relatively new judging system that stresses technique over artistry.
The number of representatives each nation gets at the Olympics and world championships is determined at the world championships of the previous year. The calculation goes like this: For a country to win three slots for its athletes, the combined placement of its top two — or only two — finishers cannot be greater than 13th.
In other words, if either Wagner or Alissa Czisny finishes third and the other no worse than 10th (or fourth and ninth, fifth and eighth, etc.) the U.S. women will be able to send three women to the 2013 world championships.
“She now has a lot of expectation from a lot of people,” Nicks said. “She has that heavy responsibility.”
Wagner knows better than any woman in the United States the value of that third slot. She earned her first trip to world championships as the third-place finisher at the 2008 U.S. nationals. Two years later, when she finished third again at the U.S. championships, she couldn’t go anywhere; she failed to make the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver because only the top two advanced.
Though Wagner wants to help restore the U.S. women’s team’s reputation, she’s also preoccupied with establishing her own place in the sport. After narrowly missing out on the U.S. Olympic team and then finishing in sixth place at last year’s U.S. championships after an injury-marred season, Wagner left her coach, Priscilla Hill in Wilmington, Del., and moved to California.
“I just felt I had gotten to the point in my skating, if I stayed where I was, my level of skating was going to stay where it was,” said Wagner, who attended West Potomac High. “I wasn’t okay letting that happen.”
Wagner’s choreographer, Phillip Mills, works out of the same rink in Alisa Viejo, Calif., as Nicks, so the move made sense. Nicks, who guided Cohen to the Olympic silver medal in 2006, has coached a host of Olympic stars dating back to Peggy Fleming.
“I was terrified of him when I first went out there,” Wagner said. “Absolutely terrified. But he’s not as scary as he comes off.”
Nicks knew little about Wagner when she showed up at his rink. He immediately liked what he saw.
“When I first saw her skate, I thought she was very talented,” Nicks said. “I couldn’t understand how she hadn’t done better. I mean, she had done well, but not done really well.”
Indeed, Wagner had accrued a handful of medals and decent finishes, but hadn’t stood atop any podium at any event since 2006, when she won a trio of junior grand prix events. Though she seemed ready for a breakthrough at the senior level back then, a frustrating inconsistency slowed her progress.
Nicks set about remedying that through repetition at practice and a refusal to add elements to Wagner’s programs until she could hit them 80 percent of the time during training. She felt more comfortable and prepared during the fall grand prix season even though her results weren’t stellar: She claimed a third at Skate Canada and a fourth at the NHK Trophy. Then, at the U.S. championships in San Jose, Wagner performed her first clean short program at that event at the senior level.
A key, she believed, was Nicks’s insistence that she perform a triple-double jump combination, rather than a more difficult triple-triple. Though she could not score big with the jump combination, she likely wouldn’t botch it. If fact, she nailed it.
“After the short program, I was so pleased I had finally gotten over that big speed bump,” Wagner said. “I was more excited for the long program. The long program is really where I excel as a skater.”
In third place after the short, Wagner won the free skate to win her first title.
“I couldn’t really wrap my head around the idea,” Wagner said. “I haven’t been at the top of a podium since the junior grand prix circuit eons ago. When I finally realized I won the national championship, it was surreal.”
Two weeks later in Colorado Springs at Four Continents, Wagner posted a personal best in the long program and scored the highest program total of the skating season.
“If I can get into the mentality that I got into at nationals and Four Continents,” Wagner said, “worlds will not be that big of a mountain to climb.”