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Ashley Wagner on injury recovery and career longevity

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Ashley Wagner: "My body is a perfect display of all the hard work" (1:18)

U.S. figure skating champion Ashley Wagner describes the strength and control needed for the athletic demands of her sport. (1:18)

This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2017, on newsstands on July 7. Subscribe today!

A relentless training regimen. Battling through concussions. The ability to withstand hundreds of pounds of force slamming against your body. If that sounds more like what it takes to be an NFL linebacker than a figure skater, then you haven't met Ashley Wagner. After posing for this year's Body Issue, the 26-year-old Olympian sat down with reporter Morty Ain to explain just how much strength and athleticism it takes to make all those triple axels look "effortless," and combat the image of figure skaters as porcelain dolls. Here's how Wagner describes her body and her sport, in her own words:


I think figure skating has this stereotype as a sport for little girls -- that we are these pretty porcelain dolls. I don't think people put a lot of thought into the athleticism that goes into the sport. But that's totally understandable because people only see the finished product. Our job is to take something that is ridiculously technical and difficult and make it look perfect and effortless and seamless. I think a lot of people would be very surprised at the kind of training we have to put in. I am on the ice 6 days a week, I am physically training 3-4 hours a day on the ice, off the ice sometimes up to 2 hours a day. This sport is my life. I feel strongly that I'm an athlete through and through. I am a fierce and hungry competitor. I am stubborn, I am a workaholic, I am obsessed with being as perfect as I possibly can.

I grew up a total tomboy; I was not in this for the spandex and the sparkles. What really attracted me to the sport was the speed and the feeling of the flow on the ice -- it's like you're flying. I grew up in a military family. My dad was tough as nails, but you know what? He made me tough as nails. If anything ever went wrong or if I had a bad day, I was never allowed to feel sorry for myself. My dad would just tell me to not be a wimp. That might not sound like the nicest parental approach [laughing], but that's what most kids need to hear these days.

Skating is this very strange balance: You have to be as strong as you physically can but as light as you can. So you have to be really smart about where you get your strength because everything that you have on your body you're going to have to haul up into the air. So even though we might not be seen as very muscular athletes, we're very strong for how much we weigh.

When we're coming down from these jumps, we land with something like 500 pounds per square inch of force. It's a ridiculous amount of force. The majority of our muscle strength goes into our glutes, our core and our lower back muscles -- everything that is going to keep you in the correct position. You have to have the strength to push against that force so that you can correctly land the jump.

I'm in the air for 0.7 seconds, but I am hyperaware enough that, if a jump is off, I know where to put my hands and how I can safely get out of it. At this point, I've been professionally falling for 21 years [laughing]. It's not too intimidating at this point. I probably don't have as much sense in one of my butt cheeks from falling on that one butt cheek all the time. But over the years, you just learn the right way to fall, you learn to cushion yourself and use your arms to absorb the impact.


"LONGEVITY IS RARE IN THIS SPORT"
Physically, skating caters to a very young body type. Every single day, we are pounding our joints and our bodies into the ice. In heavy training season, there is not a day where I wake up and I'm bushy-tailed and ready to go. You don't get a sense of total recovery. But I think as an elite athlete, that's the feeling you get hooked on -- to wake up and to have your muscles be stiff and sore and have to go in and start all over again. It's that grind that I think a lot of elite athletes obsess over.

I am one of the oldest [female] athletes in figure skating right now. Longevity is very rare in this sport. Sometimes I feel like I'm the locker room mom. Most figure skaters are seen to be in their prime from 15 to 18, maybe 20 if you're stretching it. At my first Olympics, I was 22-23, so I was way past my quote-unquote "figure skating prime."

My idol growing up was Tara Lipinski. I read an interview where she and Johnny [Weir] were talking about different athletes and what they were expecting of them post-Sochi. And I read that she was surprised that I was still competing and that she thought I would retire. There's nothing more disheartening than seeing your idol write you off. But in that moment, it kind of reminded me that if she's thinking that, then I'm sure a ton of other people are thinking that. That was something that really pushed me to become an even stronger athlete so that I could get my silver medal [at the World Figure Skating Championships in 2016].

These younger girls are doing triple-triple combinations, but at the end of the day they aren't necessary dealing with the hips of a 26-year-old, and quite frankly the body of a woman, versus the body of a kid. I think that's kind of why it's easier for a 17-year-old versus me, but I truly believe that's more of a mentality and you just have to change the game once you get older.

You want to be as tiny as possible for the jumps that you're doing. That's just the reality of the sport, it's the reality of gravity. In skating, there is a huge amount of pressure to be tiny. When I was coming up in the sport, I was competing against a predominantly Japanese field internationally. So every single competition you go to, you look at these women and they are just so petite and tiny naturally -- and I have some very sturdy Norwegian genes [laughing]! I was so self-conscious about my weight and my shape and the fact that you could look at me and see that my arms had muscle, my legs had a lot of muscle. At the time, I would just obsess over working out. I loved food too much to give it up [laughing], so I would go on the bike and bike bike bike bike bike. I would just end up wearing myself out. My body was not made to be that size -- it will just never be that -- so I was just breaking my body down.

Now, I think my body makes me look like a woman on the ice. And I think that a lot of people would rather watch a woman on the ice than a girl. If I'm out there skating to a love story, I feel like it's much more believable if I look like a 25-year-old woman who has been in love before compared to a 14-year-old girl.


"I JUST FELT TRAPPED IN MY BODY"
I have suffered about five concussions. Back in 2009 I received a concussion from a really bad fall in which I fell onto my back and my neck snapped and my head hit the ice. My body started to shut down on me entirely. It was bad enough that I would suffer from full-on body tremors, I could barely walk, I couldn't even speak through them. I would have heart palpitations. That was the most traumatizing thing that my body has ever had to go through. And it was coming up on Olympic trials -- that moment when you don't know if your season is going to be possible is terrifying. My body was literally doing everything it could to work against me. I just felt trapped in my body. I was experiencing these symptoms for probably 3 months, and for 3 months no one could tell me what was wrong and I was getting no relief. I was worried that this was a lifestyle that I was just going to have to adjust to.

I went to a neurologist, I went to a cardiologist, I went to just about any -ologist you can come up with. Finally I came across a chiropractor, and he suggested I take a look at my neck. What ended up happening was the vertebra in my neck was actually pressing into my spinal cord. The vertebra would become dislodged, press into my spinal cord and literally cause my entire body, including my heart, to short-circuit. I had to go through a couple months of really painful adjustments, so that way I could get my neck strong enough to be able to help pull the vertebra back into the place [it] needed to be in.

The concussions definitely rewired my brain in the way that I process information. My short-term memory is not that incredible; talking to me is a little bit like talking to Dory from "Finding Nemo" [laughing]. It's really affected me in the way that I learn programs because you have to memorize this choreography and the choreography is very intricate. So for me, retraining my brain to be able to learn choreography and be able to remember it, that's probably my biggest challenge.

I've also become ridiculously dyslexic -- when I say dyslexic, I mean more with my body. My choreographer has to be right next to me physically doing the movements with me. That helps me process it better, and then after that it's repetition, repetition. I'll film it, so that way I can look at it. As long as I can see it, I'll watch it over and over again until I start to feel it.

I forget what my next move is when I'm performing all the time! I have gotten to the point where I'm in the middle of the ice during competition and had five seconds of panic because I couldn't remember my program and I had to make up a little bit of it. You just kind of freestyle at that point, and then try not to panic, stay calm and it will kind of come back to you.

When I was coming up in skating, the thought was you fell, you hit your head, dust yourself off, get up and try it again. But I feel like the sports world is taking concussions much more seriously, and I think that mentality is slowly starting to creep into figure skating. In the past, openly admitting "Hey, I've had a lot of concussions, I'm having balance issues, my memory is not the same; I still want to go to the Olympics, so try not to take that into consideration!" You just didn't do that. But I think now because concussions are something people are taking more seriously, I think athletes are more comfortable to talk about them.

I've worked on strengthening my little itty-bitty muscles in my neck, and that has helped me so that when I do fall, I have the strength in my neck to support it as I'm falling back. A lot of times in figure skating, whiplash is what gives you a concussion more than anything else. You don't even have to hit your head on the ice to get a concussion, so having that neck strength has helped a lot in that aspect of my life.

For more Body interviews: AJ Andrews | Javier Baez | Julian Edelman | Ezekiel Elliott | Kirstie Ennis | Julie and Zach Ertz | Malakai Fekitoa | Gus Kenworthy | Nneka Ogwumike | Isaiah Thomas | Joe Thornton and Brent Burns | US Women's National Hockey Team | Ashley Wagner | Michelle Waterson | Novlene Williams-Mills | Caroline Wozniacki