SOCHI, Russia — The voice in Ashley Wagner’s head said she had to prove her doubters wrong. But the voice in front of her said, “Breathe.”
In the few seconds between soaking up her coach’s final word of advice and skating to center ice to strike the pose that starts her short program, Wagner summoned the soul of a fighter in her Olympic debut Saturday.
Four weeks after a nerve-stricken performance at the U.S. championships left some questioning whether she deserved a spot on the 2014 Olympic team, Wagner kept her poise, stayed upright and even sparkled at Sochi’s Iceberg Skating Palace to secure the United States a place in Sunday’s medal round of the sport’s new team event.
“It was on my mind, especially with the media frenzy over the past couple of weeks, that I needed to prove to myself and everybody else that has even doubted my belonging here in the slightest,” Wagner said afterward. “I’m here. I’m here to compete. I’m here to be competitive. Get used to it.”
Russia has owned the team competition since it began on Thursday, the day before the Opening Ceremonies, and took a commanding lead after all 10 countries had performed short programs in the four disciplines: men’s and pairs on Thursday and dance and women’s on Saturday.
Leading the charge to reclaim Russia’s glorious skating past was 15-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia, who took the ice looking like the tiniest in a set of Russian nesting dolls compared with other women in contention. She dazzled judges with her triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination, got bonus points for the execution of her every jump, spin and step-sequence and performed a second triple jump for good measure.
Lipnitskaia’s first-place finish was worth 10 points to Russia, bringing the host nation’s tally at the end of the first phase of the competition to 37. Canada was second, with 32 points. The United States finished with 27, followed by Japan (24) and Italy (23).
Only those five countries advance to Sunday’s medal round, in which free skates will settle it.
That means 18-year-old Gracie Gold, 19-year-old Jason Brown and reigning world dance champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the U.S. skaters tapped for their free skates, are likely battling to protect a bronze medal.
Davis and White were invaluable Saturday, when the team event resumed. After a poor showing in men’s and pairs on Thursday, the United States was knotted with France and Germany for fifth.
On-ice partners for 17 years, Davis and White were technically precise and artistically elegant, skating to “I Could Have Danced All Night.” By finishing first (75.98 points), they earned 10 points, doubled the U.S. score and lifted the U.S. team from fifth to third in the standings, with only the women’s short program remaining.
White, who is captain of the U.S. figure skating team, spoke about the unusual bond among the group in what is essentially an individual sport.
“Since the group was announced at U.S. nationals, we’ve been texting support for one another each day in practice, helping each other deal with nerves and expectations, and it has continued like that here at the Games,” said White, a student at the University of Michigan. “I know that everything hasn’t been 100 percent perfect, but that’s part of what being a team is: Being there for each other.”
Then he and White returned rink-side, taking their place among their teammates, to cheer Wagner on.
A solid performance was all Wagner needed to deliver; a horrible one could have cost the United States a chance at a medal.
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Wagner just missed qualifying for the 2010 Vancouver Games. And though she went on to win two U.S. championships (2012-13), and rise to No. 4 in the world, her Olympic dream was marked by hard falls, setbacks and, of late, personal verbal attacks from those who balked when she was named to the 2014 team ahead of Mirai Nagasu, who out-performed her last month at the national championships.
But she took a deep breath, as coach Rafael Arutyunyan instructed, and found a way to “be in the moment,” as he told her, without becoming paralyzed by the fact that “the moment” was her Olympic debut.
Skating to Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” Wagner completed every element in her program, including the opening triple flip-triple toe combination that has been a challenge much of the season. She was docked 1.40 points for under-rotating the triple toe but finished fourth, keeping the United States on solid ground.
Asked whether it felt like redemption, Wagner said: “To the people who doubted I belonged on this team, yes. But really it was more about proving to myself that I could get beyond that competition, that I wasn’t a nervous wreck and that I was that strong, hard-headed competitor that I know that I am and that my mother has been dealing with for 22 years. So that was good for me.”
Note: The pairs free skate was held late Saturday, with Americans Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir finishing fourth. With Russia winning the pairs free skate, the host nation extended its lead (47 points) on Canada (41) and the United States (34).