ARTESIA, Calif. — After falling twice during her long program at the recent U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Olympic medal hopeful Ashley Wagner has taken the bold step of replacing the routine with a variation on one that’s battle-tested.
With less than three weeks before the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Wagner, 22, a West Potomac graduate, has tossed out the 4-minute 40-second program she debuted this season set to Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.
Instead, she’ll compete for an Olympic medal with an updated 2013 program set to Camille Saint-Saens’ Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah — a change that entails a new costume and tweaked choreography to accommodate the difficult triple-triple combination jump that currently separates the world’s elite female figure skaters from those aspiring to be.
After a morning practice at East West Ice Palace, the Southern California rink where Wagner trains, the two-time U.S. champion spoke Tuesday about her reasons for making the change that her coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, initially resisted.
In short, Wagner conceded that she has never fully embraced Shakespeare’s vulnerable character of Juliet. And after finishing fourth following her shaky performance at the U.S. Figure Skating Championship, she decided to go back to the stronger character of Delilah.
“David Wilson, who choreographed my Romeo and Juliet program, did a phenomenal job; it was a beautiful program,” Wagner said. “But for me, I compete better when I have a strong mind-set rather than the tragic mind-set of Juliet. I need to be more of a warhorse than anything else.”
Wagner’s confidence was palpable as she worked on segments of the revamped program as her familiar long-program music played over the rink’s speakers.
“It’s a character I’m very comfortable with,” Wagner said. “Delilah is this strong woman who knows what she wants, and she’ll go after it and get it any way that she needs to.”
That’s precisely the competitor Wagner must be in Sochi, where she’s expected to face a fierce challenge for a spot on the medal podium from defending Olympic gold medalist Yuna Kim of South Korea, silver medalist Mao Asada of Japan and fellow American Gracie Gold, who supplanted her as U.S. champion earlier this month.
Wagner’s selection to the 2014 U.S. Olympic team following her fourth-place finish at nationals was criticized by many puzzled viewers on social media, who felt that third-place finisher Mirai Nagasu had earned the spot. But U.S. Championships is not an Olympic trial. U.S. Figure Skating officials choose the U.S. Olympic team based on athletes’ performances over the previous two seasons, and Wagner had compiled by far the most impressive results in international competition.
Arutyunyan, who has coached such Olympic medalists as Asada, said Tuesday that changing the program so close to the Sochi Games was the right decision for Wagner, albeit unprecedented to his knowledge.
Said the Georgian-born Arutyunyan, who competed for the former Soviet Union before becoming a coach: “When she mentioned this I said, ‘Ashley, I never heard anybody [do] that close change before Olympics!’”
Wagner won out.
“When you’re training a program that you’re fighting, emotionally and physically, it never clicks,” she said.