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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.

As last year's senior world championships took place in Los Angeles in March without her, Wagner's dissatisfaction morphed into determination. About to graduate from West Potomac High after completing her degree through online classes, she resolved to make additional changes.

Aware of Wagner's personal unrest, and knowing the importance of the year ahead, Hill approached Lipinski, who had trained in Delaware as a youth, and asked if she would act as a mentor.

Lipinski, whose electric, virtually perfect free skate secured what was considered an upset gold medal over Michelle Kwan at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, not only agreed, she did so with enthusiasm.

"I wish during my Olympic year I could have been calling Kristi Yamaguchi or Brian Boitano or Scott Hamilton," Lipinski said by cellphone from the West Coast. "It gives you a sense you are not alone."

The two met at Lipinski's house and went out to dinner in Santa Monica, Calif., kicking off a relationship that has continued via frequent phone calls and text messages.

"She's the reason my Olympic dreams started," Wagner said. "She was so young when she won, but at the same time, she was so competitive . . . Watching that was so inspiring. Ever since then, I've dreamed of going to the Olympics."

Lipinski said the two talk about on-ice and off-ice issues.

"It's a really big year for her; I'm just there for her," said Lipinski, now 27 and kicking off a career in television commentary. "She's had a lot of adjustments, a lot of adaptations. Sometimes, when a lot is going on, I believe it keeps your mind really focusing on what's important. You don't have time to really worry about the other stuff . . . [Striving for the Olympics] is a crazy thing, even without a mentor. It's a lot of pressure, a lot of stress."

Out on her own

Not long after commencing her relationship with Lipinski and after much "soul-searching," Wagner did what many other recent high school graduates do: She left home. Seeking space and peace of mind, she moved in with Hill in July. Her mother continued to reside nearby, Wagner and Hill said, dropping off Austin, who competed in the novice division at this week's championships in Spokane, for weekday practices with Hill at the same rink at which Wagner trains.

Wagner did not go home to see her family during the fall, she said, despite working for a time at the Mount Vernon Ice Rink on Saturdays to earn cash to pay for her college education. When back in the Washington area, she stayed at a studio apartment, Hill said.

Wagner's first trip home came during the Christmas holiday. She was home for about two days.

"I like to do things myself," Wagner said. "I'm relatively independent . . . With the Olympics coming up I just needed to focus on skating and being with Priscilla was the best environment . . . My family is very supportive, and they are all very proud."

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