SAN JOSE — The last time Ashley Wagner skated competitively, she skated briefly. Bothered by an infection in her right ankle for close to a month, the most experienced woman in U.S. figure skating tried to push through at an important, but not decisive, Skate America competition in late November. But the physical toll proved too much, and Wagner cut her free skate short, a wrenching withdrawal that left her apologizing and explaining the decision to her fans in an emotional social media post.
Her best friend, fellow U.S. Olympic hopeful Adam Rippon, saw her struggling in the week before Skate America. He had urged her to withdraw long before that. But Wagner felt a combination of opportunity and responsibility. In an otherwise unpredictable field of American women, she was supposed to be the rock. In the final months of what likely is her final Olympic push, she was supposed to remain steady.
Ultimately, Wagner came to the same conclusion Rippon had: To preserve her Olympic chances, she would have to listen to herself, not cater to the pressures that come with trying to become the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic singles medal since Sasha Cohen brought home silver in 2006.
"She was finally being honest about how she felt, something that elite athletes rarely want to admit," said Rippon, who trains with Wagner in Southern California.
Wagner's next competitive skate will come Wednesday in San Jose, when she skates her short program at the U.S. championships — the last competition before the Olympics, the one that largely determines who will take the three spots on the women's figure skating team in PyeongChang next month.
With a good showing this week, Wagner, 26, could become the oldest American woman to skate in the Olympics in 90 years. She will compete fully healthy, as a week of rest in the wake of Skate America healed the infection and allowed her to resume training.
But nothing about this year has gone to plan for Wagner. Ideally, Olympic seasons are defined by weeks of steady, healthy preparation. Because of the injury, Wagner had four weeks. Ideally, an Olympic hopeful would dedicate an entire season to his or her programs, beating them into the subconscious so that muscle memory subjugates make-or-break pressure. Wagner changed her free skate from "La La Land" to "Moulin Rouge" and back again.
Wagner skated a variation of that program in competition for part of 2017. But in September, she switched to "Moulin Rouge," which she used to become the first American to medal at the world championships in more than a decade when she won silver in 2016.
"In retrospect, the summer was really chaotic, and I wanted something that was familiar," Wagner said. ". . . As the season went on, I realized I made that decision listening to other people, not listening to my inner voice."
While she recovered during the week after Skate America, that inner voice spoke louder. Wagner admitted to herself that the "Moulin Rouge" program felt "stagnant." She knew she was trying to recreate a feeling that "was used up."
Then she considered the moment when she first saw "La La Land" and texted her choreographer, Canadian ice dancer Shae-Lynn Bourne, from the theater, telling her she had found the music for her Olympic program. In many interviews since, Wagner remembered getting goosebumps that day. If ever there is a time to err on the side of goosebumps, that time is the Olympics. Wagner decided to switch back
Bourne arrived to help her revamp the program. Wagner called her sound engineer, who bolstered the music with more dramatic instrumentals to make it "big enough" for the Olympic stage.
"I think if I were to tell myself in 2014 I was switching up my long program a month before nationals, I would panic," Wagner said. "But this decision was something that was just so clear and obvious, and the most level-headed decision I've made all season."
U.S. Figure Skating officials select the Olympic team based on a skater's recent body of work, not just where he or she finishes this week. Wagner is the most memorable example of the selection process's deference to skaters with an international track record. In 2014, Wagner sputtered and missed the podium, while Mirai Nagasu, a 2010 Olympian, finished third. Yet U.S. Figure Skating named Wagner to the Olympic team anyway, citing her lengthy body of international work, and left Nagasu off the team. Wagner finished seventh in Sochi.
Now, Nagasu is one of a handful of women competing with and against Wagner for one of those three spots. A more prolific jumper, Nagasu recently became the second American woman — after Tonya Harding — to land a triple axel in international competition. She is planning to unleash a few of those in her programs this week.
Teenager Karen Chen has been inconsistent this season but performs her best in the most prestigious competitions. With a bronze medal at that Skate America competition, rookie Bradie Tennell emerged as a legitimate Olympic contender. Mariah Bell finished in the top 12 at the world championships last season. Sochi Olympian Polina Edmunds, who has succumbed to injuries over the past two seasons, will be competing on home ice in San Jose.
In that field, Wagner needed only consistency to enter this week's competition as the favorite. Now she needs to impress like everyone else. But experience has honed a graceful defiance in the West Potomac High graduate, who is unabashed when talking about her stressful season and unfiltered in her intentions to make one last push for an Olympic medal.
"That's just the blatant reality of this: You either make it onto the Olympic team this nationals or you don't," Wagner said. "I only stuck around four years to go to another Olympics. That's why I'm here."
After 10 years on the international stage — a decade that included the disappointment of not making the 2010 Olympic team and a gut-wrenching nationals ahead of Sochi in 2014 — Wagner has reached a pivotal point. She has been through so much that the voice she trusts most in these critical days is her own.
"I see such a difference in her maturity level," Rippon said. "She is focused on herself and doesn't let what her other competitors do affect her."
The final stretch of Wagner's decades-long road to these Olympics will not be smooth. But after a decade-plus of skating in the spotlight, Wagner has learned no one knows how to guide her through a bump or two better than she does. With weeks to go before her Olympic push, she has taken the wheel, once and for all.