Four years ago, Ashley Wagner’s golden dreams collided with reality. As the bronze medalist at the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the West Potomac graduate, then 18, finished four points and one spot shy of making the Vancouver Olympic team.
She has spent the past four years putting that emotional devastation to use, raising her technical game, steeling her competitive mettle and nitpicking with a perfectionist’s obsession over every aspect of her skating that didn’t measure up.
As the 2014 U.S. championships get under way Thursday in Boston, Wagner, the two-time and defending U.S. title-holder, is out to prove that she’s not only tops among U.S. women but an Olympic medal contender, as well, at next month’s Winter Games.
The four-day competition, in which national champions will be crowned and the Sochi-bound team chosen, marks what’s likely the last chapter of Wagner’s near lifelong journey to become an Olympian. Though the road hasn’t been paved with gold, as it was in her teenage dreams, it has been richer for it.
“One of the worst and best things to happen to me was to not make that [2010 U.S. Olympic] team,” Wagner said last week. “I don’t think I was ready to be an Olympian. I definitely don’t think I would have been in contention to be a top-placing lady.”
Wagner need not win a third U.S. championship this weekend to lock in her Olympic spot, but a victory would place her in rare company as a three-time U.S. women’s champion. And she has an additional cushion this Olympic year, with the United States having earned the right to send three female skaters to Sochi rather than two.
It was Wagner, in fact, and 18-year-old Gracie Gold (who has emerged as her fiercest challenger for the U.S. title) whose performances at the 2013 world championships clinched that third Olympic spot.
The U.S. men, by contrast, will send just two skaters to Sochi. Last month’s withdrawal of Evan Lysacek, whose bid to defend his 2010 Olympic gold medal was derailed by a hip injury, has left the competition for the two men’s spots wide open. As many as a half-dozen could get the nod here in Boston, with 2013 U.S. champion Max Aaron, 2012 U.S. silver medalist Adam Rippon and hometown favorite Ross Miner among them.
Rounding out the 2014 U.S. Olympic team will be three ice-dancing couples, headlined by defending world champions and 2010 silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and two sets of pairs, the country’s weakest event.
Apart from Davis and White, the favorites for ice-dancing gold at next month’s Winter Games, U.S. figure skating would do well this Olympic year to match its medal haul of two in Vancouver.
The sport’s new team event represents one possibility, with Japan and Canada expected to challenge for the podium, as well.
Wagner, the first woman since Michelle Kwan in 2005 to win consecutive U.S. titles, represents another medal opportunity, though the women’s competition is expected to be fierce. It’s not that her jumps are as dazzling as those of Japan’s Mao Asada, a two-time world champion and 2010 Olympic silver medalist, or that her spins unspool with the natural grace of South Korea’s Yu Na Kim, who shattered scoring marks in winning gold in Vancouver.
But Wagner brings a prize-fighter’s tenacity to her practices and a critic’s unflinching eye to her own performances.
After finishing third behind Asada and Russia’s 15-year-old jumping phenom, Julia Lipnitskaia, in the Dec. 7 Grand Prix final, where one wobbly triple jump nearly derailed her program, Wagner returned to practice humbled and more driven than before.
“It was a nice little reality check that I needed to remember how to skate scared and train for that,” Wagner said.
Asked how a skater trains to compete scared, Wagner said that meant forcing herself to carry on despite glitches in practice rather than stopping a program in disgust. It means focusing on the music rather than the inner voice of rebuke when she puts a foot wrong. And it means forgetting a bad jump the split-second afterward, much like an NFL quarterback forgets a bad play so that one interception doesn’t become two.
“I’m a perfectionist so it’s very easy for me to get overwhelmed by mistakes and get frustrated,” Wagner said. “But I’ve got to keep on pushing through mistakes, visualizing and preparing for the nerves I’ll feel at Nationals.”
Those are among the lessons Wagner has learned since refusing to quit after missing the 2010 Olympics. They are lessons that would have been lost on her teenage self.
In many respects, Wagner’s Olympic quest is about proving that maturity is an asset, not a liability — even in a sport that prizes the illusion of weightlessness.
At 22, Wagner is a woman now, as well as a world-class female figure skater who has survived what she jokingly refers to as “the puberty monster.” She has a woman’s body and brings a woman’s artistic sensibility to the ice, flaunting a sexy side in her short program set to Pink Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” and the full range of yearning and loss in a long program set to Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
“I just feel I’m a totally different skater now than I was four years ago,” Wagner said. “I was a girl on the outside looking in.”