Being Ashley Wagner these days means competing in Paris Friday and Saturday nights, skating in a gala there Sunday afternoon, flying to New York Monday, performing at the Rockefeller Center ice rink and appearing on the Today Show Tuesday morning, visiting a third grade class at a Staten Island school and flying home to Los Angeles Wednesday afternoon, then preparing for her you-can’t-get-there-from-here odyssey to the Grand Prix Final on the 2014 Winter Olympic rink at Sochi, Russia in two weeks.
And doing it with a head cold caught in Paris that remained very evident from her congested-sounding voice in a telephone conversation.
“This is a dream come true,” Wagner said through sniffles. “This is the kind of life I have always wanted. It’s exciting to be at this point in my career.”
It is a point Wagner has reached after several seasons of being a physically gifted but mentally weak athlete, a skater talented enough that even when she came undone in a competition she almost was good enough to succeed.
“I knew I had the talent if I could mentally keep it together and perform well under pressure,” she said.
Wagner had begun to call herself the Almost Girl until she finally won her first event as a senior-level skater, last January’s U.S. Championships. She would go on to win the 2012 Four Continents Championship and finish fourth at the World Championships – best by a U.S. woman since 2007.
“I still didn’t feel I had actually proved anything,” she said. “I needed to show I was able to maintain that skating.”
Done. She has started this season with victories at the Japan Open and Grand Prix events in the U.S. and France. Not since Sasha Cohen in 2003 had a U.S. woman won both her regular-season Grand Prix competitions.
At 21, Wagner has gone from the Almost Girl to the It Girl of U.S. skating, the one with attention-grabbing appeal as the Olympics get closer. Nike recently made her the first figure skater it has signed as a promoter. You can see her skate in the Pandora Unforgettable Holiday Moments on Ice show Sunday afternoon on NBC.
Wagner now is indisputably the best woman skater in the United States. This season, she has beaten all the world’s leading women except reigning Olympic champion Kim Yu-Na of South Korea, who returns to competition next month after a year off.
“I am anticipating Kim will come back strong,” said Wagner’s coach, John Nicks. “She will be one of Ashley’s main rivals – if not her only rival.”
While the technical difficulty in Wagner's programs falls short of some rivals’, notably those of 14-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia and 15-year-old Elizaveta Tuktamisheva - whom Wagner calls the “Russian skater babies” - the artistic quality of her programs is infinitely superior. Wagner brings a level of maturity and stability she has acquired during the six years it has taken her to distance herself from the overnight sensations who once regularly beat her.
In 2007, the 15-year-old Wagner finished third in the junior event at the U.S. and world championships to a pair of 13-year-olds, Caroline Zhang and Mirai Nagasu. A 14-year-old, Rachael Flatt, was fifth in that U.S. senior event. In the next three seasons, Flatt and Nagasu would go on to win U.S. senior titles and compete at the 2010 Olympics.
“People acted like I was the grandma in that group,” Wagner said.
Flatt and Zhang are pretty much history. Nagasu is trying to revive her career after two disappointing seasons.
Few can handle having the pressure of great expectations added to the physical and psychological changes teenage girls experience and the changes in a sport demanding more and more meaningless, muscle-wrenching tricks.
“I was able to slowly work my way up,” Wagner said. “The spotlight was never on me, so I could sort through everything on my own without anyone focusing on me. Once I was ready, I could handle more attention.”
For all that, Wagner was getting ready to call it quits until she struck out on her own – quite literally – and moved from the East Coast to try working with Nicks before last season. She had dismissed the idea of a sports psychologist because it didn’t mesh with the value of independence she had gained from a “strict military upbringing.”
“The psychologist can’t be out there on the ice with me,” she said. “The fact I was able to achieve this with the help of no one but my coaches and the support of my family emotionally is very satisfying to me.”
Her transformation in the past year has been breathtaking.
Now her schedule is too.