ARTESIA, Calif. -- In the final weeks before the Sochi Olympics, while the world's top figure skaters were polishing their routines, Ashley Wagner was at a southern California ice rink, starting over.
Four years devoted to making the Olympic team after narrowly missing in 2010 resulted in emotionally fraught success: Wagner fell twice at last month's U.S. championships and finished fourth, making her selection a controversy rather than coronation.
Above: Ashley Wagner fell to fourth place at the recent national championships in Boston, but soon afterward she found a place on the U.S. Olympic squad for the first time. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
So Wagner took a hard look at herself and made a radical change. She scrapped her long program -- the heart of her Sochi playbook, in effect -- and started patching together an alternative.
"It's insane. Absolutely insane," Wagner said, conceding that champion figure skaters simply don't overhaul their programs so close to a major event.
But in a sport of theatrical costumes and makeup, in which rigor masquerades as effortlessness, Wagner is as grounded in reality as they come. And she knew as well as the judges that her performance to Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" lacked conviction. Her disconnect with the music and the tragic personae of 14-year-old Juliet was palpable.
So she convinced her coach, choreographer and costume designer to update "Samson and Delilah," a medal-clinching program she competed in 2012-13 that showcased the power of the Biblical temptress and a fully realized woman to be feared.
"Off the ice, I can be soft and I can be elegant and sweet. But on the ice, that's not the kind of competitor I am," said Wagner, 22. "I relate so much better and compete so much better as a stronger character who is a little bit, almost, evil. For me, when I feel like I'm out there tempting everybody into loving my program, that's when I feel undefeatable."
It's a major gamble, rewriting the competitive script on the eve of an Olympics. Elite athletes draw their confidence from repetition -- endless repetition that etches particular movements into the muscles' memory so that when the pressure to perform is greatest, the body can do nothing else.
But Wagner, daughter of an Army officer, who moved seven times before her family settled in northern Virginia when she was 10, is entirely at ease amid flux, accustomed to adapting on the fly. And as a competitor, she's a fighter to the core -- at her best when battling from behind.
"I am in this to be something," Wagner said the day of her controversial selection to the 2014 U.S. Olympic team. "I'm in this to make a name for myself. I'm in this to be remembered. And I'm so prepared to do whatever I can to get onto that medal podium."
As music from Camille Saint-Saens' "Samson and Delilah" filled the East West Ice Palace here last month, Wagner's coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, skated backward alongside her, barking commands, eyes fixed on the blades of her skating boots. Wagner repeated each element until Arutyunyan was satisfied. And the longer she worked, the more she attacked each passage -- every bit the modern-day Delilah, determined to get what she wants.
"The claws are out," Wagner declared upon launching into an interview after practice ended. "I'm ready to go!"
'I was viciously competitive'
Eric and Melissa Wagner hopscotched around the country as his Army postings dictated when their children were little. And much of that time, he was out of the country on special assignments, off to Bosnia, Cambodia, Laos, Australia and elsewhere. It was during her solo-parenting stint while in Eagle River, Alaska, that Melissa, a former college rower, offered 5-year-old Ashley a choice between ballet or figure skating.
Refusing to wear pink shoes, Ashley chose skating. And Melissa bought a tiny dance outfit, found a seamstress to sew on enough sequins to make it pass for a figure-skating costume and strapped a helmet on her daughter.
Today, Wagner has two distinct memories of that Learn-to-Skate class: Being so excited to do what all her friends were doing and wanting more than anything to be the best skater of them all.
"From a young age, I was viciously competitive," she said with a laugh.
She progressed nicely under new teachers in Kansas City, Tacoma, Wash., and Portland, Ore., where she studied under Tonya Harding's former coach, Dody Teachman, as a third-grader. But it was in Alexandria that Wagner blossomed into a skater of national consequence, working with Shirley Hughes at Mount Vernon Ice Arena.
After six years of impressive results with Hughes, Wagner felt she'd hit a plateau and moved her training base to Wilmington, Del., to work with Priscilla Hill, who had coached Johnny Weir. So Melissa rented an apartment nearby, and she and the two children (Ashley's younger brother, Austin, followed her as a competitive skater) lived in Delaware during the week and came home to Alexandria on weekends.
All too often, the price of being a world champion in ultra-demanding sports such as women's gymnastics and figure skating is paid in total immersion and arrested development -- not just physically, but emotionally and socially.
That wasn't the daughter the Wagners reared. Once she turned 18, Ashley believed it was time to find out if she was competing for herself or her parents, so she declared her financial independence. Her figure skating results had improved, and she took over paying for her training, equipment and travel, helped by the New England Skating Fund and a part-time job selling jeans at American Eagle.
For her mother, it was time to let go.
"Some of these kids live inside the rink; I've always let my kids live," said Melissa James, now divorced. "They're going to grow up. They need to know what's out there. They need to make mistakes. Yes, I'd like to have a safety net underneath them. But if I didn't let her go when she was 18, she never would have been where she is today."
'I needed to be pushed'
Wagner missed the 2010 Olympics by 4.08 points, paying on a small scale for one fall in her short program at that year's U.S. championships and on a larger scale for the fact that the United States' international status had slipped to the point where it had just two Olympic berths. In the aftermath, Wagner thought about quitting and joining her friends headed to college, but the impulse passed in less than 24 hours. Instead, she doubled down on her training and dubbed herself figure skating's "Almost Girl," having spent so much time on the periphery of greatness.
She moved back home and struggled through a miserable 2011 season, plagued by excruciating muscle spasms.
At such crossroads, many elite athletes consult sports psychologists. Wagner followed her father's advice instead: "Don't be a wimp."
And she started looking for a coach who would demand even more.
"I needed to be pushed. I needed to be uncomfortable," Wagner said. "I definitely wanted somebody who wasn't going to mother me. I'm such a strong-headed person and so stubborn, I don't need someone to be sweet to me. I needed someone to say, 'This is how it's going to be, and this is how you're going to do it.' "
U.S. medals since 1964
The 2010 games were the first in 46 years and just the fifth ever in which the U.S. did not medal in women's singles.
|2002||Sarah Hughes||Michelle Kwan|
|1998||Tara Lipinski||Michelle Kwan|
|1992||Kristi Yamaguchi||Nancy Kerrigan|
The search led to the venerable John Nicks, then 82, who had molded such Olympic medalists as Peggy Fleming and Sasha Cohen. Wagner flew to southern California to introduce herself.
"Immediately what I saw was a potential that she hadn't reached, for whatever reason," Nicks recalled. "She was extremely athletic, strong and determined. She had a lot of the characteristics that are important for a competitive skater.
"I told her I was not going to be her friend or father or grandfather or great-grandfather. I would be her coach. She seemed to understand and appreciate that."
Moving from East Coast to southern California upon turning 20 represented a more profound declaration of independence. Her father couldn't help when Reba, Wagner's ancient Jeep Grand Cherokee, broke down and died on side of a freeway in Mission Viejo.
But in time, Wagner forged her own life on the West Coast, which consists of visits to a favorite coffee shop and the requisite juice bar, walks on the pier and jogs along the beach and plenty of practice.
She also assembled a surrogate family, which includes an eight-toed cat, Dexter, and best friend Adam Rippon, 24, a fellow skater who plays multiple roles: brother, father, cheerleader, confidante, sounding board and "boyfriend without having to be my boyfriend," as she puts it.
Under Nicks, Wagner made significant strides in the artistic aspects of her skating and learned to be a more professional competitor. He stressed the importance of winning over audiences, mindful that judges are swayed by standing ovations, regardless of what the rule book says. He also instilled the importance of behaving like a champion each time she stepped onto the ice, including practice, which judges attend to form impressions of skaters.
In short, he helped Wagner re-introduce herself to the sport and re-set her aspirations in judges' eyes. And her marks reflected his polish, with Wagner winning the U.S. championships in 2012 and defending the title in 2013.
A pair of tumbles during the ladies' free skate at the U.S. championships stunned fans and resulted in Wagner dropping to fourth in the final standings, her Olympic dream seemingly in doubt. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
'It has not been easy'
Just when everything seemed to be falling in place for her Olympic season, with Sochi nine months off, things started going wrong.
Nicks, who had threatened to retire for 20 years, informed Wagner in April he could no longer travel to competitions at age 84, having logged 110,000 air miles the previous season. Her parents' divorce, though not necessarily a surprise, was finalized in May. She had parted with her longtime choreographer, couldn't find a piece of performance music that thrilled her, was struggling with costumes and, once again, in need of a coach.
"You imagine your Olympic season, and everything works out perfectly. Dream come true, you know," Wagner said with a smile. "It has not been easy."
At Rippon's suggestion, she contacted his coach, Arutyunyan, only to get an awkward silence in reply.
"I don't think I'm much to write home about," Wagner said, "but he had no idea who I was on the phone. He said 'Who?' "
"Ashley Wagner?" she replied. "Two-time national champion?"
Photos: A figure skater and a fighter
Wagner was tentative in her normally brassy short program at the 2014 U.S. championships, scaling back her triple-triple to a triple-double but staying upright. Two nights later, she fell twice in the long program. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Born in Tblisi, Georgia, Arutyunyan competed and coached under the former Soviet system before coming to the United States roughly 12 years ago. His expertise is jumping technique, and that's precisely what Wagner needed to master the high-risk, back-to-back triple-jump combination from which she had shied away.
To have any shot at an Olympic medal, Wagner knew she needed to perform the triple flip-triple toe she'd been practicing. As she bluntly put it, she's not innately talented enough to overcome with artistic marks what she'd surrender in technical scores without it.
"She have no other choices," Arutyunyan conceded, "because it's the lowest limit for today. You cannot go lower than that."
Entering last month's U.S. championships in Boston, Arutyunyan knew she hadn't had a chance to properly prepare. The rink in Artesia had been too crowded with recreational skaters and lessons over the Christmas break. And Wagner, a left-hander who skates and jumps the opposite direction from right-handed skaters, spent too much of her run-throughs dodging others.
"It's like a Ferrari on the road with trucks. Doesn't work," the coach said.
Wagner was tentative in her normally brassy short program, scaling back her triple-triple to a triple-double but staying upright. The ungainly falls came two nights later, when instead of defending her U.S. title she finished fourth, a stream of mascara following a river of tears down her face.
After the interviews and drug test that followed, she couldn't bear to walk through the lobby of the event's official hotel, knowing it would be teeming with agents, sponsors, fellow competitors and former champions. So she hopped a cab from TD Garden to the Residence Inn just across the Charles River, where her mother was staying.
It was nearing 1 a.m., and the desk clerk paid no attention to the young woman with puffy eyes lugging a plastic sack of teddy bears and bouquets into the lobby. Most of the guests had retreated to their rooms; all that remained were Wagner's mother and brother, waiting by the gas-log fireplace meant to simulate the warmth of home.
She tried explaining the nervous meltdown that threatened to scuttle her Olympic dream: How her legs had turned to lead the moment her name was called, how her mind fogged over when she fell the first time and suddenly, it was as if she was reliving the U.S. championships of 2010.
"I wish I hadn't done this," Wagner told them.
And because tough love and truth-telling are family values, Melissa James didn't tell her daughter it would all work out. Instead, she reminded her that skating wasn't her life. There was nothing to do but wait.
'Mentally tough as nails'
At noon the next day, Wagner was named to the Olympic team, her selection unassailable based on U.S. Figure Skating's criteria, which heavily weighs skaters' international results over the previous season. By those measures, Wagner crushed all challengers. Still, the decision flummoxed many who watched Mirai Nagasu skate circles around Wagner and finish third a night earlier, only to be left off the Olympic team. And the perceived injustice triggered a social-media uproar.
At the moment when 17 years of effort and ambition were rewarded, Wagner found herself forced to defend her credentials. She fielded journalists' questions for nearly an hour afterward about what had gone so horribly wrong, why she felt she deserved to represent the United States in Sochi and how she planned to avoid a similar collapse with an Olympic medal at stake.
"I was overwhelmed from the big lights, the big show and everything being at stake at once," Wagner said. "I'm not that skater that everyone saw last night. I'm a fierce competitor; I'm mentally tough as nails."
The United States dominated women's figure skating from 1968 to 2002, winning five of the 10 Olympic gold medals. The last American woman to win an Olympic medal was Cohen, who claimed silver in 2006, and the United States hasn't medaled in any of the world championships since.
South Korea's Kim Yu-na and Japan's Mao Asada, the reigning Olympic gold and silver medalists, set the current standard of grace and technical precision. Each 23, they're the favorites entering Sochi. Russia's 15-year-old jumping phenom, Julia Lipnitskaia, is also deemed a medal threat, along with Italy's elegant Carolina Kostner, 26; and recently crowned U.S. champion Gracie Gold, 18.
Wagner, who has finished among the top five in the past two world championships, will be in the mix, too -- not a vulnerable Juliet but a formidable Delilah.
"A lot of figure skating in recent years has been about the porcelain-doll look, but I feel like I'm someone who you can sit down and have a conversation with over coffee," Wagner said. "I have fought for everything I've gotten. It wasn't like I was an entitled little girl who Mommy and Daddy just paid for everything and treated her like a princess. I had to earn everything I got. And that developed the way that I compete. I'm scrappy."
Wagner, right, joins U.S. champion Gracie Gold, second from left, and second-place finisher Polina Edmunds, center, on the U.S. team for Sochi. The three are introduced with past U.S. Olympic gold medalists, rear from left, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton and Brian Boitano. (Reuters)