Under pressure, Wagner shines

SOCHI, Russia -- Ashley Wagner's marks weren't as high as she thought they should be Saturday, but they were high enough to silence the critics who complained she should not be on the U.S. team. Or at least lower their volume.

One month ago at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston, Wagner fell several times and finished fourth but was named to the team anyway, ahead of third-place finisher Mirai Nagasu. Wagner said then that making the Olympic team removed the pressure and that she would skate well in Sochi.

Given that so many critics felt she shouldn't have been on the team, Wagner was actually under a great deal of pressure, but she handled it just fine. She skated a solid routine in Saturday's short program, landing all her jumps and sending the U.S. to the medal round in the new team competition. She finished fourth with a score of 63.10, just behind Japan's Mao Asada, who fell in her routine.

"It was more about proving to myself that I could get beyond a bad competition," Wagner said. "And that I wasn't a nervous wreck and that I was that strong, hardheaded competitor that I know that I am and that my mother has been dealing with for 22 years. That was good for me.

"This performance was for myself and mentally getting past these past couple weeks. And I wanted to do everything I could to help the team, and I really felt like I delivered on that part."

Wagner said she will leave Sochi to train somewhere else in the coming week for her individual competition but would not say where. "Somewhere in the universe." Meanwhile, the rest of the U.S. team will try to earn her a medal here.

The U.S. is in third place with 34 points and a good chance at the bronze medal heading into Sunday's finals. Russia is first with 47 points, Canada second with 41 and Italy fourth with 31. Gracie Gold, who won the U.S. championship, will skate the women's free program; Meryl Davis and Charlie White will skate the free dance; and Jason Brown skates the men's free. The pairs free program was held Saturday, with Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir finishing fourth to give the U.S. seven points.

Olympic spots normally go to the athletes who finish highest at the national trials. But skating holds national championships, not trials, and thus has the leeway to choose skaters based on previous performances, as well. Indeed, Wagner helped the U.S. gain a third berth in the women's competition by finishing high at last year's world championships.

Even so, many were outraged that U.S. figure skating would put her on the team ahead of Nagasu, who finished fourth at the 2010 Olympics. And those outraged fans and columnists let Wagner know about it.

"The first week, it really hurt me because they were attacking my character [more] than my skating abilities," she said. "Then I realized that people who have something mean to say tend to shout the loudest. And I have had an overwhelming amount of support from the skating community and from Mirai herself, which is all that I really needed. Beyond that, I knew that my skating would do the talking and I don't need to say anything."

Wagner said her performance at nationals was horrible but was the best thing because it helped her better prepare for the Olympics.

"It was on my mind, especially with the media frenzy over the last couple of weeks, that I needed to prove to myself and everybody else who doubted my belonging here in the slightest," she said. "I'm here. I'm here to compete. I'm here to be competitive. Get used to it."