LONDON, Ontario — Figure skating is a sport of impeccable timing and grace. Both failed two-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner in her travels to the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships.
After her flight from Orange County, Calif., was delayed, Wagner, a West Potomac High graduate, was forced to sprint through San Francisco International Airport to make her connection just before the plane’s doors closed. Upon landing in Toronto she learned her mammoth suitcase containing her skates and skating dresses hadn’t made it. It was past midnight by the time she arrived at her hotel here, and she was on the phone trying to track down her luggage until 4 a.m.
As a result, she chose to sleep through the 7:30 a.m. women’s practice, targeting the 6:30 p.m. session instead. But by mid-afternoon, Wagner still had no skates, no outfits and only a slim chance of taking part in the next-to-last practice for the all-important world championships, in which résumés are polished for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
“I’m at worlds, and I don’t have my skates, and that’s definitely a weird feeling,” a slightly bleary-eyed Wagner conceded. But in much the same way skaters insist that falling in practice often helps “get the jitters out,” Wagner maintained that her off-ice misadventure had a silver lining.
“Things like this make me take a step back and not get so intensely focused on one event,” said Wagner, 21, who finished fourth at the 2012 world championships. “It’s a huge event, but I need to breathe and relax and remember I’m only human. I’ll be fine.”
This year’s world championships, which get underway with the pairs and men’s short programs Wednesday and conclude Saturday, feature one of the more competitive women’s fields in years.
It includes defending world champion Carolina Kostner of Italy, a brilliant if inconsistent performer; defending Olympic champion Kim Yu-na of South Korea, who returned to competition just three months ago after a 19-month hiatus; and two-time world champion Mao Asada of Japan, the 2010 Olympic silver medalist and Kim’s chief rival.
They’re the most prominent among the roughly 200 figure skaters from 50 countries who have descended on London to compete not only for individual medals but also for their nation’s allotment of spots in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
For the United States to reclaim its customary three women’s spots after being bumped down to two for the 2010 Vancouver Games, its two entrants at worlds — Wagner and 17-year-old Gracie Gold of Chicago — must place no worse than 13th when their final scores are tallied. For example, fourth- and ninth-place finishes would secure a third Olympic berth; fourth and 10th would not.
The United States faces the same challenge in men’s, pairs and dance, its strongest discipline at the moment.
No skater understands the imperative of securing that third spot better than Wagner, who just missed the 2010 Olympics as a result.
“It definitely is a tall order to fill, but I think Gracie and I, if we skate strong, we’ll be able to get that spot for the country,” said Wagner, whose skates were delivered to the rink just as the 6:30 p.m. practice got underway. “I personally want it back because I know how it feels to be third place at nationals — where every Olympics prior, third place was good enough — and have it not be quite enough.”
To finish on the medal podium, the singles skaters will be expected to pack their programs with daring jumps performed in jaw-dropping combinations. The era in which artistry alone could compensate for a lack of technical rigor is all but over in figure skating.
For the women, that likely includes back-to-back triple jumps. Wagner won her second consecutive U.S. title in January without it. But since taking a needed break to recover from a hard fall she suffered in December, she has been working on a triple-triple and intends to include it in both Thursday’s short program and her free skate Saturday.
Her coach, John Nicks, will decide whether to go forward after evaluating Wagner in Wednesday’s final practice.
In men’s figure skating, the once awe-inspiring quadruple jump is now expected of all serious medal contenders, although American Evan Lysacek won gold at the 2010 Olympics without one (though not without controversy).
The scoring system that rewards the greater degree of difficulty all but demands it, notes Max Aaron, 21, who landed two quads in his “West Side Story”-themed free skate to clinch his surprise U.S. national title in January.
“I’m a math guy, and I crunch numbers and figure out all the statistics,” said Aaron, a converted junior hockey player. “You really can’t make up the numbers in the competition aspect; you have to make it up in the air. That’s why two quads in the long program are key.”
The men’s competition figures to be a showcase for practitioners of the quad.
The favorite among them is Canada’s Patrick Chan, the two-time defending world champion, who looked supremely in command during practice Monday, landing a quad toe-triple Axel combination. Chan attributed his resurgent form to recently relocating his training base from Colorado Springs to Detroit, which he implied boasts a tighter knit, more supportive corps of elite skaters.
Fellow Canadian Kevin Reynolds also could medal; he recently landed three quads in his free skate to win the Four Continents title.
All will likely face stiff competition from Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi and Yuzuru Hanyu. Spain’s Javier Fernandez might be the most ambitious of them all, landing four quads in his two programs to win the European title in January.
“I don’t think it has ever been this abundant,” Chan said.