Wagner still the best bet for U.S.
Under pressure, Wagner has struggled
Stories about the politics behind who gets named to the U.S. Olympic team are rarely entertaining. We want those teams to be determined by performance. But in some cases, a sport has to consider other factors, and U.S. Figure Skating was right to include Ashley Wagner on the team bound for Sochi.
Mirai Nagasu skated beautifully, and she won't go to Sochi because of Wagner's selection. That must seem unfair right now, but the federation picked a skater who has been consistently skating at a high level at the international level for years.
If the criteria were strictly the order of finish at the qualifier, then Wagner would be out. But it's part of the official rules that a year's work can be taken into account when making the final determination on the Olympic team, and Wagner's year includes a fifth-place finish at the world championships.
Wagner also has name recognition. Lindsey Vonn won't be skiing in Sochi because of her injured knee, and the Americans need as many household names as they can get. You hope sponsorship pressure didn't play into the decision -- lipstick commercials are expensive! -- but there's a reason Wagner has that platform; she's been that good for so long.
There would be no argument if Wagner had finished first, but it makes no sense for U.S. Figure Skating to respond by leaving arguably its best skater home, either. The goal here is to win medals for the U.S., and Wagner is perhaps the best shot this team has to do that.
Wagner realizes how close she came to being eliminated. And the truth is, everyone will know soon enough whether it was the right call. The pressure is on for Wagner to claim a medal in Sochi because no one gets a mulligan twice.
It wouldn't be fair to say that Ashley Wagner didn't earn her spot in Sochi -- she's the most decorated and experienced skater on the team. She just didn't earn it Saturday night.
The 22-year-old, who fell twice in a disastrous performance that landed her a distant fourth at Saturday's U.S. championship, got the nod over third-place finisher Mirai Nagasu because of the reputation she earned with strong performances over the past two years. But it's safe to say U.S. Figure Skating took a risk on Wagner. When the pressure is high, she has struggled.
She's fared poorly in events leading up to world championships -- whether it be worlds or the Olympics. In both this national championship and December's Grand Prix final, Wagner suffered falls and received negative grades of execution on four jumps. She fell twice in the free skate at both events a year earlier, as well.
"There seems to be a little bit of a pattern," Wagner admitted Saturday. "Going into the Olympics, I can just let myself skate without worrying about whether I am going to watch my dreams fall apart.""
The problem is, the dream isn't just to make the Olympics -- it's to compete well, to medal, maybe even to get the gold. Wagner speaks as though the pressure is past her when, in fact, the weight of expectations -- her own, and her country's -- will only grow heavier from here on out.
While I can't say I fully disagree with the decision to send Wagner to Sochi, you do have to wonder if Nagasu might have been the better choice. She was fourth at the 2010 Games as a 16-year-old and skated like a seasoned pro en route to third place Saturday night. She hasn't been as consistent as Wagner over the past few years, but she performed at her best when the stakes were highest. The Olympics only come around every four years and the skater who is ready to compete for gold now should be the one selected.
To quote Wagner herself, "Skating needs someone who will definitely show up when the world is watching." Let's hope Wagner will show up in Sochi.