Wagner ready for challenge at Games

AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Ashley Wagner will start 27th in Wednesday's short program at the Sochi Games.

SOCHI, Russia -- Even for an athlete who has been a nomad all her life, the trajectory of Ashley Wagner's past four years -- and most especially her past six months -- looks like a pinball's journey through the fluorescent landscape of figure skating. Sometimes, she lit things up. Sometimes she went down the drain. She kept feeding the coins into the machine and taking her chances.

Wagner arrived at these Winter Games with a different coaching arrangement, a different free skate and a different aura from the one she had planned on this season. The 22-year-old has dropped out of most conversations about the podium mix, eclipsed by the expectations that shifted to her younger teammate Gracie Gold when she succeeded Wagner as U.S. champion last month, and by the looming duel between defending gold medalist Yuna Kim of South Korea and Russian teen phenom Julia Lipnitskaia.

Thus Wagner finds herself back in the familiar position of long shot after the wheels came off for her at nationals. A flawed short program and calamitous free skate dropped her to fourth place in Boston -- a development that wasn't entirely surprising in retrospect given her nagging, season-long discomfort with her long program. She ditched it and pieced together new choreography to her "Samson and Delilah" music from last year, but it was too late to stop the controversy that followed her selection to the Olympic team over third-place finisher and 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu.

Still, Wagner has never tumbled into an abyss she couldn't scramble out of, and she has projected nothing but confidence in Sochi. She did her part by skating a solid short program to help the United States win a bronze medal in the new team figure skating competition. In the process, she became a contender in the unofficial Battle of the Olympic Memes thanks to her spontaneous expression of displeasure -- dramatically outlined in red lipstick -- with her score.

"I think it's hilarious, to be honest," Wagner, an admirer of the late comedienne Gilda Radner, told reporters after returning to Sochi from a short training hiatus in Germany. "What you see is what you get ... I haven't mastered the art of sitting and smiling."

AP Photo/Steven Senne

"The hard part's over," Ashley Wagner said after being named to the Olympic team last month. "Now I'm in a position where I can just skate."

Away from the ice, she hasn't backed off the strong public stand she first took last fall on the topic of Russia's anti-gay legislation, an issue dear to her because of gay friends and family members. This week, she repeated that it was more productive to speak out than to protest by way of rainbow-painted fingernails or other accessories.

"It's something I couldn't stay quiet about," she told espnW in December. "Once every four years, you get this type of platform. The fact that in this day and age we don't have equal rights baffles me, that we're still going through issues like this in the States is so frustrating to me.

"The legislation in Russia is horrible, and I am worried for what it's going to be like as soon as the bright, fancy lights of the Olympics go off and we get out of there."

It's typical of Wagner to meet challenge head-on -- a habit formed while she was growing up as an Army brat, a perpetual new kid in class who wanted to dig in rather than be back on her heels.

"Yes, I can adapt to change easily, but I'm not a fan of it," Wagner said. "I really would much rather have had an Olympic season where everything fell into place and worked out perfectly."

That would have been a fairy tale. But Wagner likes to cast herself as the anti-princess, so she may be right where she wants to be when she takes the ice for Wednesday's short program.

For better or worse, many of Wagner's memorable moments have been captured in excruciating close-ups.

When she finished third at the 2010 national championships in Spokane, Wash. -- almost, but not quite, making up for a fall in her short program with a bravura free skate -- she was among the candidates compelled to sit with television cameras trained on them as they received texts confirming whether they were on the Olympic team. With only two slots available, Wagner was left without a chair when the music stopped.

The crisis that befell her some months later played out in private.

In the summer of 2010, while Wagner was still training under coach Priscilla Hill in Wilmington, Del., she began to experience an elevated heartbeat and episodic, scary whole-body tremors that forced her to interrupt training -- sometimes for a short interlude, sometimes for days. Eventually, she sought out Dr. Steven Mathews, a sports chiropractor with extensive experience in figure skating injuries, who identified the cause as a small muscle with a big name: the rectus capitis posterior minor at the base of the skull. It happens to be one of the muscles skaters need for stability, especially in layback spins where they are doing backbends and looking skyward.

Mathews found he could stop the spasms by working on the area and releasing the muscle, which had clenched to the point where it was pressing on vertebrae and affecting the surrounding nerves. "She couldn't do complete programs," he said. "I went down and watched her, and when [the spasms] happened, she'd have to let it subside.

"Everyone thinks she's a sweet girl, and she is, but she's a tough cookie."

Wagner likes to attribute her inner strength to a "take-no-prisoners" upbringing by her parents -- Eric, a retired Army lieutenant colonel based in upstate New York, and Melissa James, a former teacher and avid masters-level rower in Annapolis, Md. When Ashley falters on the ice, she hears her father's voice telling her not to be a wimp. When she speaks to reporters, she rarely stumbles, partly because James made her watch her own interviews when she was a junior.

"I really was a stickler," said James, whose son Austin was also a competitive skater. "I wanted my children to be able to speak appropriately to adults, and we're losing that with this technological generation. We'd watch and I would remind her to breathe instead of saying 'Um,' because 'um' is just gathering your thoughts. But she is so good at it. She brings her natural personality to it."

Wagner misses few opportunities to thank her mom and dad, but she also emancipated herself relatively early in a sport where parents often hover. She stopped accepting financial support from them at age 18 and, over the next three years in Delaware and Southern California, made do with sales jobs in clothing stores and a grant from the Michael Weiss Foundation established by the former Olympian. It was her own version of going away to college, right down to the Ramen noodles.

"When my parents were paying for my sport, it wasn't just me out on the ice," she said. "Pretty much every dollar my mom made teaching went into my skating. As soon as I took control, stepping out onto the ice to compete was more for myself. It was easier for me to emotionally process it and handle the pressure, because I was the only person I was going to let down if something went wrong."

In 2011, Wagner moved across the country to Aliso Viejo, Calif., to train with John Nicks, the octogenarian Henry Higgins of figure skating renowned for his ability to give skaters a finishing edge. They meshed well: Nicks is fond of saying that the sport needs more than little girls in pink dresses, and Wagner considers herself a feisty tomboy. She responded with the best two seasons of her career to that point and credits Nicks with teaching her to perform and connect with audiences.

"What she did was very different from the normal track," said Nicks, who praised her independence and estimated that he has met Wagner's parents less than a half-dozen times. "She had tremendous talent, but hadn't reached her potential at all, and in two years, she made gigantic strides."

The ice shifted under Wagner's feet again last September when Nicks called her in to tell her he was scaling back, forcing her to find a primary coach who would travel. Weeks after splitting with choreographer Phillip Mills, it left Wagner unmoored professionally.

Rafael Arutunian, based in nearby Lake Arrowhead and already coaching her close friend Adam Rippon, agreed to take Wagner on short notice. Where Nicks conferred stage presence, Arutunian's strength is in technique, and he listened as Wagner expressed her frustration with landing triple-triple combinations in competition. Then he insisted on tearing down her jump mechanics and rebuilding them.

"It was all new for me and it was terrifying," Wagner said. "You want the Olympic season to be easy, and right off the bat I'm falling on most basic jumps that any senior lady can do. It was definitely a rough couple of months, but I had heard so much about Raf and his reputation that I knew that he knew what he was doing regardless of whether I felt good about it or not."

Wagner landed on the Grand Prix final podium for the second straight year with a bronze and aimed at a third straight U.S. title. She and Gold recaptured a third Olympic slot for the United States with their combined placements at the world championships. She had three seasons of consistent results, a slew of sponsors, the respect of peers who voted her as their leader during team test events. She had every intention of continuing that momentum in Boston, but that's not the way things turned out.

The first thing Wagner did when she sat down in the kiss-and-cry area at the U.S. championships, still heavy-legged and numb with shock after botching her free skate, was to look directly into the lens connecting her to the world and mouth the words "I'm sorry."

They were meant for her mother, who was watching from the stands, crushed by empathy. "That was my one big emotional skating-mom moment," James said, her voice wavering briefly. "It's her dream, it's never been my dream, and she wanted to let me know she hadn't done her best."

Under the 21 pages of rules outlined by the U.S. Figure Skating Association, Wagner was still in good shape for the Sochi roster because of her international results, by far the best of any of the top four U.S. women. The championships are not branded as Olympic trials for a reason -- officials don't want to be constrained by the standings in case a top skater has an awful outing, as Wagner did.

Mathews had spent a restless, anxious night wondering if Wagner would be named to the Olympic team. She has been symptom-free for the past couple of years but still goes in for sessions with him whenever she's in the area, and he will occasionally watch video and give her biomechanical feedback. He thinks of her as a daughter and she never ends a conversation without asking after Mathews' family and his fiancée.

AP Photo/Steven Senne

Ashley Wagner's two falls during her free skate at nationals kept her in fourth place overall, but she was later named to the U.S. Olympic team.

Wagner got the news the same way she had four years ago -- via text from the USFSA. She was sitting in the stands at a practice session for Rippon and had to go into a quiet corner of the concourse to compose herself. One of the first calls she made was to Mathews.

"'You think I'm one of those people who forgets? You think I'm too good to be your friend? I'm not,'" she told him.

Wagner knew her selection would generate questions, and she was ready for it when she walked into the news conference with teary eyes.

"The hard part's over," she said, managing a laugh. "Now I'm in a position where I can just skate."

She flew home and kept a low profile while the dust settled from the team selection. She thought about the way her "Romeo and Juliet" free skate chafed at her like a scratchy costume, and convinced Arutunian to let her revert to what she called a "Frankenstein" grafting of her 2012-13 free skate music and choreography borrowed from both programs.

Wagner also did something she might not have done a few years ago when she was intent on declaring her independence. She invited her mother to come out for a week.

"There's always been a little bit of healthy chaos in her life," James observed. "I have to honestly say, I was so impressed. She was absolutely fine. She regrouped, like she always does. She puts the carrot out in front of herself and then she goes for it. The [new] program is something to focus on other than nerves and the big moment."

Wagner will skate 27th out of 30 women Wednesday, and she wants to do more than stay upright. "I want people to see a real person on the ice," she said in December, before the latest wave of change washed over her and forced her to reboot. "I want to seem tangible, hard-working, passionate about my skating, not just going out and doing something I've rehearsed a million times."

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