Ashley Wagner, shown here in the Skate America competition in October in Kent, Wash., is aiming to defend her U.S. nationals title this week in Omaha, Neb. (Otto Greule Jr/GETTY IMAGES)

They were just comments, not a medal she could hang around her neck or trophy she could display.

But when Dick Button pulled her aside last November to express his admiration, and reigning Olympic champion Evan Lysacek asked how she was holding up under the stress, Ashley Wagner reveled in a different sort of reward. Being recognized by figure-skating’s elite left her humbled and proud, their words an affirmation that she had established herself as an Olympic contender after missing the cut for the 2010 Vancouver Games.

On Thursday, Wagner, 21, takes the next step in a carefully crafted program designed to land her in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, when she sets out to defend her 2012 title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Wagner, a West Potomac graduate, seeks to become the first woman to win back-to-back U.S. championships since Michelle Kwan in 2005. In doing so, she would also lock in a spot at figure skating’s world championships in Ontario, Canada, in March.

“It has been my dream to not just go to the Olympics, but go and be competitive at the Olympics and be a medal hopeful,” Wagner told reporters heading into the U.S. Championships, which run Thursday through Sunday at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center. “This past season . . . I’ve proved I’m able to be competitive against some of the top-ranked [skaters] in the world. I still have a lot of work to do; I have a lot to improve. I’m not where I want to be going into next year’s Olympics, but I think I’m starting to get there.”

Wagner finished second to Japan’s Mao Asada at the Grand Prix final in Sochi on Dec. 8 despite falling twice during her free skate. One of the tumbles, during a triple loop coming out of a double axel, was particularly bruising, leaving her with a hip pointer and wrenched back.

But she proclaimed herself fit and eager for the U.S. Championships, which she enters as the gold-medal favorite. The women’s field is without two-time national champion Alissa Czisny, runner-up to Wagner last year, who dislocated her surgically repaired left hip during a recent tune-up in Appleton, Wisc.

With Czisny out, Wagner may face her toughest challenge from 17-year-old Gracie Gold, the 2012 U.S. junior champion who’ll be competing in her first senior-level competition in the United States. Known for her jumping and athleticism, Gold is expected to skate a more daring program than Wagner, who’ll dial back her ambitions and place a premium on delivering a clean, artistic performance.

On the men’s side, 27-year-old Jeremy Abbott is chasing a fourth U.S. championship, which would place him among an elite group of 11 that includes Button, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano and Todd Eldridge.

Like Wagner, Abbott is reining in his level of risk in Omaha, dropping a quad jump from his short program, in hopes of staging a spotless, artistic showing. Assuming he can keep the back ailments that dogged him in 2012 at bay, he should finish atop the podium.

Notably missing from the men’s competition is Lysacek, 27, the reigning Olympic champion, who withdrew earlier this month, citing a slower than expected recovery from surgery to repair a hernia in November. Also missing is three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir, who returned to competition last season after a two-year hiatus but pulled out of this event, disappointed with his form.

Only the gold-medal winners in the women’s, men’s, pairs and ice dancing competitions will lock in a spot at the world championships. A second competitor in each discipline will be chosen later.

At worlds, all will be under pressure to perform not only for themselves but also for U.S. Figure Skating. Based on past performance, the U.S. is guaranteed just two Olympic berths for the men’s and women’s competition at Sochi; to gain a third spot, the top two finishers must place no lower than 13th when their results are combined. In other words, a fourth- and ninth-place finish by American women would be rewarded with a third Olympic berth. But a third- and 11th, for example, would not.

“The U.S. ladies really need to get that third spot back,” said Wagner.

In ice dancing, four-time U.S. champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White are prohibitive favorites. And medals of all colors should be up for grabs in an injury-depleted pairs field.

Note: Lorraine McNamara, 13, of Germantown and Quinn Carpenter, 16, of Wheaton claimed bronze in the junior ice-dancing competition (149.25 points) Wednesday.