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With help from Tara Lipinski, Ashley Wagner takes shot at redemption

A strong support network, including former gold medal winner Tara Lipinski, helps Alexandria figure skater Ashley Wagner bounce back from her struggles at the 2009 world championships.
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 19, 2010

For Olympic figure skating hopeful Ashley Wagner of Alexandria, last year began with a regrettable performance at the U.S. championships in January. The ensuing months unfolded with lingering disappointment, an enormous transition and increasing pressure. Wagner, 18, tried to tackle it all on her own.

Along the way, however, a mentor by the name of Tara Lipinski and a big-hearted coach extended hands to help. Now, with the Olympic trials for the U.S. women's figure skating team set to begin Thursday in Spokane, Wash., Wagner has emerged rejuvenated and improved.

A leading contender for one of the two Olympic team slots in women's figure skating, Wagner hopes to complete a whirlwind year and a quiet turnaround with an excellent performance at this weekend's event.

Wagner's best effort likely would be enough to secure an invitation to her first Olympics, the Feb. 12-28 Winter Games in Vancouver. It also would purge lingering regret over her disappointing fourth-place finish at last year's U.S. championships, while validating her decision to move out of her home and in with her coach last summer -- even though her mother and brother actually resided closer to her training rink. Most Olympic hopefuls strive for steadiness as they approach the Games. Wagner shook nearly everything up.

"It's been a crazy year," Wagner said via cellphone from Wilmington, Del., where she has trained since mid-2008, "for the Wagner family in general."

The craziness is not quite over. This weekend will set Wagner loose at the most-difficult-to-handicap Olympic trials in women's figure skating in decades. Sasha Cohen, the 2006 Olympic silver medal winner, is expected to take the ice despite not having competed in nearly four years. A host of young Americans -- Wagner, Alissa Czisny, Rachael Flatt, Mirai Nagasu, Caroline Zhang, Emily Hughes and Bebe Liang -- are considered contenders for the team, with none a major favorite.

"We have about six or seven girls really all in the running," Wagner said. "It's going to be a great nationals for spectators, but as far as the girls competing, it's obviously stressful. We all know what's at stake. If I think about what could possibly come for me to be top two at nationals, there is no way I could possibly skate."

After the year she's had, however, Wagner figures she's ready to take on anything.

It began with a flawed combination jump and hand on the ice. Landing in 12th place after a mistake-filled short program at the 2009 U.S. championships put her prematurely out of the race for a world-championship team berth and made even more exasperating her eventual first-place finish in the long program.

"The short program was disastrous; I don't know any other way to say it," Wagner said. "I knew if I had skated well, I could definitely have won nationals, but I couldn't get my mind off of my first combination [jump] . . . It was a big lesson to learn."

Making a connection

At first, it was mostly just painful. Wagner's performance at the U.S. championships earned her a trip back to the world junior championships in Bulgaria, where she finished in third place, the same as in 2007 at age 15: third. In summer 2008, after her 16th-place finish at that spring's senior world championships, Wagner had left Shirley Hughes, her coach of six years at Mount Vernon Ice Arena, to join Priscilla Hill, the former coach of Olympian Johnny Weir, in Wilmington.

Wagner, her mother Melissa and younger brother Austin had moved into a place near Hill's rink. On weekends, they traveled back to their family home in Alexandria.

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