Ashley Wagner glided across the ice at the Mount Vernon RECenter on a recent afternoon and landed a triple lutz, one of the most difficult skating jumps, with just a hint of a wobble. Then she did it again, and again.
To the 13-year-old Fairfax County girl, the ice rink has become a second home where she spends hours training each week. Ashley, who is among the nation's most promising young skaters, is on the verge of breaking into the elite competitive ranks.
Ashley Wagner, 13, is among the nation's most promising young skaters.
But off the ice, Ashley's life is different from some top-notch teenage skaters who build their days around practice sessions. Once her skates are untied, Ashley is a cheery eighth-grader who earns straight A's at Whitman Middle School, loves to send instant messages to friends using her family's computer and has a fondness for Almond Joy candy bars.
"I feel like I'm pretty good at balancing things," Ashley said in a recent interview. "Some skaters, they live for skating and they are home-schooled. I'm very lucky my parents let me go to school and have a normal life."
The life of this energetic middle schooler offers a window onto the world of an athlete at the top of her game, and the challenges for a family that supports and encourages that talent but doesn't let it take over their lives. Ashley's younger brother, Austin, 11, also skates competitively. But although the family spends hours at the rink, they make time for kayaking, family meals and trips to the zoo.
"The main thing for us is to think of the family, what works for the family," said Ashley's mother, Melissa Wagner, a fourth-grade teacher at Washington Mill Elementary School in the Alexandria section of the county. "When things seem to get too crazy, we go down to the Potomac and take a walk together. It reminds us there's more to life than first place."
Ashley is by no means the only competitive skater attending public school, but her mother said the choices they have made seem especially stark after they returned from the recent 2005 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Portland, Ore. Ashley placed seventh overall in the novice ladies' competition.
"Some of these skaters don't even live with their families anymore," Wagner said. "They ship them off to training centers. But I just want to be able to enjoy every stage of their lives."
That balancing act makes for a hectic schedule in the Wagner house, but the family says it's worth it. Melissa and her husband, Eric, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, rise at 4 a.m. for a morning jog. Melissa, Ashley and Austin are at the RECenter by 6. After school, Ashley and Austin head back to the rink for more skating. Then it's dinner and homework -- and maybe a half-hour of television -- and Ashley is in bed by 8:30.
Weekends, except the few during which skating competitions are held, are reserved for family and friends, and there's no skating practice. Austin plays in a local soccer league and the family goes to watch. Ashley spends her downtime reading -- her favorite author is Madeleine L'Engle -- and likes to hang out with friends from school.
But Ashley said nothing gives her as much joy as getting on the ice. She admits it's sometimes hard to wake up at 5 a.m. for her 6 a.m. training, but she said she has never once chosen to sleep in.
"When you get out there and start moving, all of a sudden you're awake," Wagner said. "I really love it, it's just releasing. Sometimes it's like being a daredevil because you kind of throw yourself into the air."
Ashley first put on ice skates when she was growing up in Alaska, where people often turn parking lots into ice rinks and everyone straps on their skates and takes a whirl. The way she tells it, she was in kindergarten when her mother offered her a choice of ballet lessons or ice skating lessons.
"I was driving my mother crazy because I had nothing to do in the afternoon," Ashley said. "I never liked the pink tutus, so I decided to ice skate."