Ashley Wagner knows what it is like to be on the outside looking in.
That’s why she doesn’t underestimate the importance of having the two U.S. women headed to next month’s World Championships – herself and Gracie Gold – skate well enough to earn a third U.S. women's spot at the 2014 Olympics.
And she doesn't duck the idea there is pressure to do it, as skaters often do.
“I was personally affected most directly from only having two spots going into the last Olympics,” Wagner said during a Tuesday teleconference. “This is the U.S. ladies last shot to get that third spot back. There is definitely a ton of pressure at this competition."
Wagner finished third at the 2010 U.S. Championships. Only the top two skated in the Vancouver Olympics because the U.S. women had failed to earn a third Olympic spot for the first time since the 1994 Winter Games and just the second time since World War II.
Wagner clearly doesn't want to take part of the fall for it happening again.
To get back the third spot, at both the Olympics and worlds, Wagner and Gold must have combined finishes at worlds that add up to 13 or less – for example, first and 12th, sixth and seventh, etc.
“Gracie and I, as long as we skate solid performances, we will be able to accomplish that," Wagner said. "But I definitely am aware there is a lot at stake.”
The U.S. women now have failed to earn a third spot for five straight worlds. The best result total in that span was 16.
The odds of them doing it this time got a little better when Finland’s Kiira Korpi, a two-time European Championships medalist, dropped out of worlds with an injury. But the odds still don’t seem good.
The senior worlds that begin March 13 in London, Ont., will be the third for Wagner, 21, the reigning U.S. champion, and the first for Gold, 17, runner-up at last month’s nationals.
Wagner finished 16th in her world debut, as a 16-year-old in 2008. She did not get back until last year, when she was fourth.
“My first time at worlds was overwhelming,” Wagner said. “I wasn’t prepared for how big an event it was.”
Gold has said a couple times this season, her first at the senior level, that she has felt similarly overwhelmed by the atmosphere at the elite events.
If Wagner regains the performance level that brought victories in her first two Grand Prix events this season, she should be a strong medal contender – even a title contender – at worlds.
But Wagner fell twice in the free skate at each of her last two competitions, the Grand Prix Final and nationals. She lost the free skate at nationals but kept her title because Gold was a poor ninth in the short program.
Can Wagner shake that off?
“It’s really not that hard to go forward,” she said. “I don’t think either of them have anything to do with each other.
“The falls in Sochi (Grand Prix Final) – one was a freak accident, the other was me losing a little focus. Nationals is a very, very difficult event, especially coming in as the defending champion. I think I succumbed to the pressure a little bit.
“But this is a new competition, different mindset, competing against different girls. I don’t think it will be a problem to really move past it.”
Wagner skipped the Four Continents Championship in Japan earlier this month to regroup, both mentally and physically, since one of the falls in Sochi left her battered and bruised at nationals.
Gold went to Four Continents – her first senior international championship event – and finished sixth in a field that did not include any European skaters. She said her goal for worlds is to make the top 10.
Unless Gold does at least that well, some U.S. woman is likely to feel the same way Wagner did in 2010.