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Ashley Wagner's bumpy but determined drive to the Olympics

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Ten Olympic figure skating gold medalists lined up side by side at the Izod Center to rehearse their introductions for a show called "Tribute to American Legends of the Ice."

At one end was two-time Olympic champion Dick Button, whose 1948 and '52 victories were the earliest. At the other was Evan Lysacek, the reigning men's Olympic champion. Between them stood seven Olympic silver medalists and eight of the other 11 U.S. men and women who have won Olympic titles.

The show's director told the assembled group they would be running through the introductions three times, which would take 15 minutes more. That prompted a reaction of feigned impatience from one of the 2014 Olympic hopefuls who would be introduced later.

"They have already had their moment," Ashley Wagner said. "I'm still waiting for mine."

She has been waiting since it slipped away after a fall on her third jump at the 2010 U.S. championships in Spokane, Wash., the de facto selection meet for the U.S. team that went to the 2010 Winter Games. TV cameras caught a reaction of disgust about missing the team that was classic Wagner: honest and unafraid to express herself on the issue at hand, be it her gut emotions or Russia's anti-gay legislation.

After a disappointing fourth in Thursday's short program at the U.S. Championships in Boston, where the results weigh significantly in selection of the Olympic team but are not the sole determinant, defending champion Wagner seemingly has one of the three U.S. women's tickets to the Sochi Winter Games in her grasp based on her performance this season and the last two. Wagner trails leader Gracie Gold by 7.41 points and runner-up Polina Edmunds by 2.04 going into Saturday's free skate.

She is the first to win consecutive women's national titles since Michelle Kwan in 2005, easily the leading U.S. woman on the Grand Prix circuit this season and a solid contender for an Olympic medal after finishing fifth and fourth at the last two world championships.

Wagner's road from Spokane to Sochi has been bumpy and circuitous. There were moments of defeat and confusion that would have shaken most skaters' confidence. In her, they prompted a defiant determination befitting an athlete raised by a father who was a military officer and a mother who readily admits to being the tough one in the family.

To see Wagner now, at 22, is to see a young woman comfortable in her own skin and wise enough to understand that focusing only on a sole, hoped-for moment is like going through life with blinders. That she is enjoying the ride, both literally and figuratively, was evident in a couple of days in December.

Whirlwind schedule

Ashley Wagner began Monday, Dec. 9, in Fukuoka, Japan, where she had earned $12,000 for finishing third in the Grand Prix Final two days earlier, then flew 161/2 hours in coach via Tokyo to Newark, N.J. Body clock issues from the 14-hour time difference limited her to three hours' sleep each of the next two nights.

Now it was 6:15 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 11, and Wagner was at the Rockefeller Center ice rink doing a run-through of the program she would do two hours later on the "Today" show.

When she finished, Wagner remained on the ice for some pictures with friends.

"I didn't want to get off," she said while standing on a bench to be closer to a ceiling heat vent that took the chill off the 29-degree weather. She would reject the offer to do the live TV performance in warmup clothes, taking the ice for 21/2 minutes in a dress that left her arms and back bare.

Wagner called her mother, Melissa James, as soon as she got into the limousine taking her back to a New Jersey hotel. Despite the disorientation of jet lag and being so tired she felt nauseated, her enthusiasm was that of, well, a kid at Christmas.

"This morning was one of the 10 coolest things I've ever done," she told her mother. "It felt like the whole city was yours."

James plainly was delighted to be at the other end of that conversation. She recalled Ashley having described the awe she felt in a previous "Today" show performance, when she was doing a spin with her head back and suddenly noticed the skyscrapers looming above.

"Those are the moments you want your children to have," James said by telephone.

Especially after the heartbreak her daughter endured in 2010 and 2011. And, more recently, the chaos she had to deal with in the month last spring when Ashley was dissed publicly by her former choreographer, had to find a new coach, split up with her boyfriend and learned her parents' divorce was final.

"You always imagine everything will go so smoothly in the Olympic season," Ashley said.

Making a commitment

By the national meet in January 2010, Ashley Wagner had been skating for 13 years as her family, including younger brother Austin (a skater who stopped competing in 2010 and is an interior design student at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn), bounced around the country with Eric Wagner's Army postings.

She had finished third and fourth in the two previous U.S. championships, winning the free skate in 2009 after a 12th-place flop in the short program. She expected to win one of the two U.S. women's spots at the 2010 Olympics.

"I went there thinking, 'This is my dream coming true,'" she said. "I hadn't thought of the steps I needed to make it come true."

Her third-place finish was a nightmare, with a missed triple lutz jump in the short program to haunt her because she took second in the free skate. The next season was even worse. Nagged for months by debilitating muscle spasms finally found to be caused by neck muscle tightness, Wagner, then 20, would finish sixth at nationals and reach a crossroads.

Wagner, who had been training for three years in Delaware under Priscilla Hill, realized she needed a big change. It became a move to Southern California to work with John Nicks, a no-nonsense coach who concentrates on training skaters, not befriending or becoming a surrogate parent to them.

"Ashley thrives under discipline, and sometimes she likes to admit it," her mother said.

When Ashley left the East Coast, she also felt it was time to take more financial responsibility for her career after years of having her mother's teaching salary go to covering expenses. She would work part time in a jeans store until prize money from Grand Prix events in the fall of 2011 made that unnecessary.

Soon after the move, Wagner made a confident pronouncement: She was going to win the 2012 U.S. championship. Left unsaid until she did it was her intention to move on if that hadn't happened.

"Skating is one of those sports you unfortunately see people get stuck in," she said. "It was a lofty goal, but I didn't want to put off an education much longer if I really wasn't going to be going anywhere."

In two seasons, Nicks helped the athletic Wagner develop performance skills that take advantage of a woman's maturity. Yes, that means a little sex appeal, not surprising for a skater who says Katarina Witt is her model.

"This is still very much a porcelain doll sport," Wagner said. "A lot of people who watch figure skaters want us to look like pretty princesses. I want people to see the athlete, and I want to look like a woman among girls."

At the end of last season, Nicks, turning 84, told Wagner he no longer wanted to travel to competitions, sending her scurrying for a new coach.

Adam Rippon, a 2014 Olympic team contender and Wagner's best friend, and 2008 world champion Jeffrey Buttle of Canada recommended Rafael Arutunian, who had coached Kwan at the end of her competitive career. Wagner called Arutunian and was undaunted by his not knowing who she was at the start of their first conversation.

No robot she

Sponsors clearly have a positive feeling about Wagner, no matter that she has yet to win a world or Olympic medal. Her sponsor list, unusually long for a skater, includes CoverGirl, Nike, Procter & Gamble, Hilton HHonors, the Century Council, Highmark, Pandora and BP.

Nearly all those sponsors had signed on before she won a medal for empathy by stepping onto ground that seemed to unsettle nearly every contender for the 2014 U.S. Olympic figure skating team.

At the U.S. Olympic media summit in Park City, Utah, several skaters were asked to comment on Russia's anti-gay legislation. Everyone dodged the issue until Wagner calmly decried the legislation on human rights grounds and stuck to that stance through several TV interviews that followed.

"Everyone sounded like a robot," she said. "I wasn't going to sit there and not speak my mind."

"She did it very elegantly," said Rippon, who was not at the media summit. "I was so proud of Ashley" for stating her opinion in support of the LGBT community.

Wagner is unsure what she might do in Sochi. She is aware of U.S. runner Nick Symmonds' having dedicated his world championship silver medal in Moscow last summer to gay and lesbian friends at home.

"I would love to do something like that," she said.


Twitter: @olyphil

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