LONDON, Ontario -- Ashley Wagner embraced the stress of skating to regain a third Olympic figure skating slot for the United States in 2014. She refused to look away from the big, wrinkled pachyderm at center ice. Instead, she hand-lettered a locker room banner in her mind and told reporters she was on a crusade.
Teenager Gracie Gold's strong free skate had already ensured her of no worse than a seventh-place finish, and that meant the 21-year-old Wagner, a two-time U.S. champion, had to get inside the top six to restore the U.S. team to the maximum three. But she had her eyes on the prize and not the math behind it. "I knew if I skated the program I wanted to skate, it would happen," Wagner said.
She hung tough, surviving a two-footed landing on a double Axel-triple toe loop combination and a fluke fall during a step sequence. In the hush before her scores were announced, Wagner closed her eyes in the "kiss and cry" area next to her 83-year-old coach John Nicks, who has seen it all. "On the international scene, you never know," she said with a slight roll of her expressive eyes. "I'm aware I skated first in a group of very powerful ladies. I know everyone's waiting on what they are going to do, so I didn't know what to expect."
Stature is still a variable in skating algebra, as everyone was reminded in the men's competition Friday, when two-time defending world champion Patrick Chan was boosted over the brilliant but untested 19-year-old Denis Tan of Kazakhstan. But Wagner, graded objectively, finished fifth overall to Gold's sixth and guaranteed the U.S. will take a trio of women to Sochi.
"For us, what we accomplished, with this strong international field, is more than standing on top of that podium," Wagner said. "It's something we haven't been able to do for, what, five seasons now? The fact that Gracie did it with me her first time out, it's huge."
The top of the podium was booked, anyway. Defending Olympic champion Kim Yu-na of South Korea posted a no-vacancy sign after the short program and bolted the doors with an exquisite, wobble-free skate to the soundtrack of "Les Miserables" that catapulted her to the world title by a margin of more than 20 points over silver medalist and 2012 winner Carolina Kostner of Italy.
The U.S. has sent three singles skaters to every Winter Games since 1928, with the exception of 1994 and 2010. But 2009 U.S. champion Alissa Czisny stumbled badly in the short program at the world championships in Los Angeles that year and her 11th place overall (combined with Rachael Flatt's fifth) reduced the U.S. women's contingent to two for the Vancouver Games. Wagner, third at nationals in 2010, was the one left behind and languished for a month in that limbo-land known as first alternate.
Gold, 17, skating to music from the film "Life is Beautiful," nearly hit the boards after a shaky double Axel landing in the first half of her program, but said it woke her up rather than dragged her down. "It kind of brought me back into the zone, into the focus," she said. "I reminded myself I still had three big jumping passes left."
Unlike Wagner's head-on approach to the Olympic team issue, Gold said she was better served by directing her energy inward on her first trip to the world championships. But she's clearly geared up for the test next season will present. "I think we finally have an upward trend with U.S. ladies' figure skating, and that's something to be hopeful and positive about," she said. "We built upon our last worlds by a huge amount. Going into Sochi, we're at that perfect point to start to peak."
She is still at base camp compared to Kim. "She looks like she knows that she's going to hit everything," said Gold, a talented jumper herself who hasn't quite worked up the nerve to approach Kim in person yet. She said she knows she has to replace awe with respect. Executing two classy programs in the thin air at worlds will speed that process. Watching from home would have delayed it "more than I care to share," Gold said.
Wagner is still finding her way along the Olympic trail, as well. "I felt at the top of my game earlier this season," she said. "Then I overbooked myself. I had two really strong Grand Prix competitions and then I did a lot of shows and traveling. When [the Grand Prix final in] Sochi came around, I was fried. ... I've learned a lot about how to pace myself going into next year's Olympics."
If she gets there, she'll have her eyes wide open and this night's performance to thank.