Ashley Wagner back on the ice after year of 'absolute insanity'

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 11:20 PM

The bad news came in a text message. That's how Ashley Wagner, a West Potomac High graduate, learned she barely missed making last year's U.S. Olympic team. As she sat with other female figure skaters in a rinkside lounge just after the U.S. championships, awaiting news from the selection committee, Rachael Flatt's phone buzzed first. Seconds later, Mirai Nagasu's beeped. Both could not suppress their joy.

Wagner quickly did the math, then grimly told her coach, "Let's go," an instant before she received her electronic rejection. She knew that in the competition to make the Olympic team, third place was as good as last.

Even a year later, Wagner, 19, can still feel the pain of missing out on the Vancouver Olympics by 4.08 points - almost precisely her penalty for a fall attempting a triple Lutz in her short program - and she isn't sure she can endure another long-haul, high-intensity push for the next Winter Games, which take place in 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

Yet she is back in action, eager to set her career on a fresh course at this weekend's U.S. figure skating championships in Greensboro, N.C., having slipped by not only last winter's wrenching emotional disappointment but also by a summer of frightening and mysterious physical problems.

"This year," she said, "has been absolute insanity."

When Wagner stepped on the ice in October in Nagoya, Japan, for her first major competition since last year's championships, she unveiled a new long program that she had rehearsed in practice, from start to finish, fewer than a half dozen times. Just two weeks before the NHK Trophy, the season's first grand prix event, she could barely stand up on the ice, let alone train.

In the circumstances, her fifth-place finish represented a major victory - not that anyone watching could have known.

"I wish," she said, "that I could have gone out with a huge sign over my head that said, 'This is my sixth run-through. Bear with me.'"

A racing heartbeat that had nagged Wagner for some time grew increasingly frequent last summer and was soon accompanied by full-body muscles spasms that left Priscilla Hill, Wagner's coach at the Skating Club of Wilmington, alarmed and aghast.

Occasionally during practices, muscles all over Wagner's body would begin gyrating simultaneously and inexplicably. The trigger for the spasms never was clear. The incidents were, Wagner said, more exhausting than painful, but she could not skate while they occurred.

"The full-body tremors were some of the most horrific things I've ever seen," Hill said. "It was like an epileptic seizure, except she wasn't on the ground . . . When it was at its worst, we didn't have a clue what it was."

Said Wagner: "I didn't have control over my own body. . . . I was extremely worried."

Wagner traveled out to Colorado Springs for medical tests at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, but no cause could be identified, and when she returned to the East coast, the tremors only worsened. She visitied a host of physicians: cardiologists, neurologists and spinal experts. For three weeks, she did no training. Tests, however, continued to be inconclusive.

Finally, Hill consulted with sports chiropractor and muscle specialist Steve Mathews of Aston, Pa., who was well-known for his work with hockey players and figure skaters. Not only did Mathews determine that muscle tension in the back of Wagner's neck was pushing a vertebrae out of place and squeezing various nerves - effectively causing the body to go haywire - but also when he pressed his hand against the vertebrae, he could cause the spasms to start and stop as if he were flipping a switch on and off.

Mathews said tight neck muscles are not uncommon in skaters who routinely subject their bodies to all manner of pounding, from jumping to spinning so hard and fast that blood vessels in their eyes sometimes burst. Even so, he said, Wagner's case was a stunner.

"These were violent tremors; literally the whole body would start shaking," Mathews said. "I have never seen anything like it in my life."

Aided by a Mathews-devised physical therapy program two or three times a week, Wagner has succeeded in loosening the muscles in and around her neck and bringing the problem under control.

"She's 100 percent for [this] competition," Mathews said. "She's ready to go. She is absolutely the best I've ever seen her. She's been symptom-free from the crazy symptoms she had before her grand prixs."

Wagner claimed the bronze medal at a November grand prix in Moscow, but her performance in Nagoya kept her out of the season-ending grand prix final in December. The season's biggest event, though, still looms: The U.S. championships will determine who represents the United States at the world figure skating championships in Tokyo in March. Two U.S. women will go. Hill has tried to play down the stakes.

"I'm just hoping for [Wagner] that she has two nice skates and, no matter what, she can be proud of herself," Hill said. "I want her to go and really enjoy herself. I know how good she is, and how much she's been through this year, and how hard she's worked."

It wasn't easy, Wagner and Hill said, to get back to work.

Wagner's performance at the U.S. championships wasn't good enough to get her to Vancouver, but it earned her an invitation to the 2010 junior world championships in The Hague, Netherlands, in March. Wagner declined the spot, however, because her heart wasn't in competing at the junior level after coming so close to the ultimate destination.

"The most difficult thing for me to deal with is I had such an amazing season," Wagner said. "I was very, very, very bitter, as I'm sure anyone would be. I'd come so close to achieving the dream I'd had ever since I was a little girl and saw myself on the Olympic podium. To come so close was gut-wrenching."

Even so, Wagner said she cheered on Nagasu and Flatt at the Olympics (they finished fourth and seventh). She received a flood of support from family and friends, particularly her brother Austin, a high school senior with whom she shares an apartment near her training rink. She tried to stay positive, forcing herself to recall the season's high points and put her disappointment into perspective.

She also sought balance, vowing to return to a full-time school - instead of taking the online courses she had been enrolled in for two years - and applied to a number of colleges for entry next fall. She realized she still needed skating in her life, but she also needed more in her life than merely skating.

"I'm right on track to be where I want to be," she said. "In the past couple of years, I have been so placement-oriented . . . I'm trying to take a different approach this year."

Added Wagner: "I'm grateful that last year ended up the way it did. I took so much away from it. I learned a lot about myself and what I could handle. It was a huge disappointment, but I realized my whole entire career isn't about the Olympics."

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