DETROIT — The daughter of an Army officer, Ashley Wagner did not flinch when it came time to move — whether from Eagle Rock, Alaska, where she started skating at age 5, or from Northern Virginia, where she graduated from West Potomac High before bolting for Southern California to train with the venerable John Nicks.
Wagner isn’t one to flinch in the face of controversy, either, delivering an impassioned case for human rights for all during a recent U.S. Olympic Summit, where most athletes chose not to address the implications of a Russian law that’s widely perceived as anti-gay.
And with the 2014 Winter Games looming, Wagner isn’t flinching over the chief shortcoming in her repertoire: the absence of a triple-triple combination jump, which has become expected of figure skating’s elite and is routinely performed with particular grace and amplitude by reigning Olympic champion Kim Yu-na and silver medalist Mao Asada.
Instead, Wagner is devoting the run-up to the Sochi Games to proving to herself — and to international judges — that she can land the triple-triple that might make the difference between winning an Olympic medal and coming home with memories of what might have been.
“A clean program will do a lot, but it will not win the Olympics,” Wagner, 22, said with customary candor. “And it most likely will not get me onto the Olympic podium. I, myself, don’t think I’m talented enough to get on the podium without a triple-triple. I’m just trying to be as realistic about the triple-triple as I possibly can be.”
A two-time and defending U.S. champion, Wagner narrowly missed qualifying for the 2010 Vancouver Games.
She started building her case for a place on Sochi’s podium in earnest Thursday at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena, where practice got underway for Skate America, the first Grand Prix event of the season. The three-day competition, which runs Friday through Sunday, features an international field of Olympic and world champions and those aspiring to be.
Asada, 23, highlights the women’s contingent, which includes Americans Caroline Zhang and Samantha Cesario, in addition to Wagner.
Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi leads the men’s field, which notably lacks reigning Olympic champion Evan Lysacek, who hasn’t competed since 2010 because of a string of injuries. With Lysacek’s Sochi prospects in question, American hopes rest primarily on former junior hockey player Max Aaron, whose artistry isn’t yet as evolved as his impressive jumping skill.
The top U.S. prospects for gold in Sochi, ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the 2010 Olympic silver medalists, are sure to be cheered by a partisan crowd. The Michigan natives are seeking their fourth consecutive Skate America title.
And the pairs competition is expected to be dominated by reigning world champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia, who were undefeated last year.
Wagner isn’t the same person — and certainly not the same skater — she was at 18 when she fell just short of a spot on the Vancouver-bound Olympic team. The programs she has prepared with an eye toward Sochi are designed to demonstrate just that, showcasing her broader emotional range and technical ability.
Her short program, which she’ll perform Friday, is set to Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” In Wagner’s mind, the choreography evokes the style of former champion Katarina Witt, whose tapes she has been watching recently.
“She was so feminine but so strong in a way I really admire,” Wagner said of Witt. “Her skating was really sexy, but it wasn’t vulgar, and that’s really admirable.”
Her long program, to be performed Sunday, is sheer romance, set to Sergei Prokofiev’s music from “Romeo and Juliet.”
The latter includes the triple flip-triple toe that she has worked on with her new coach, Rafael Arutunian, a Russian known for his technical expertise.
“The triple-triple establishes you to another class of figure skating,” said Wagner, the 2012 Skate America champion. “The elite of the elite are competing it, and I want to be a part of that. You get a lot more respect as an athlete when you put the triple-triple out there under pressure.”
Wagner’s leap is a bold but necessary step, according to 1998 Olympic gold-medalist Tara Lipinski.
“The triple-triple really separates the top skaters from the middle-of-the-pack skaters,” said Lipinski, who was Wagner’s idol in grade-school. “What makes it so difficult is that it’s one of those combinations of chance, where if the first triple gets a little off or your landing gets a little wonky, it’s really hard to pull off the second one. So that takes not only a lot of training but at-the-moment decision-making. Doing one triple is a lot safer. It’s a lot harder to do the two in a row.”
Wagner included the triple-triple in her long program at the Japan Open earlier this month but was downgraded by judges, who quibbled with its delivery.
In Lipinksi’s view, that’s more reason to stick with it.
“You’ve got to put it out there,” Lipinski said. “The more you do, the more experience that you gain from learning how to handle a triple-triple in competition, under nerves, because it’s a lot different than when you’re feeling good in practice when you’re just throwing jumps around.”