Ashley Wagner: From Almost Girl to All the Way Woman

Through good times and bad, she's been the face of U.S. Figure Skating. Now, Wagner says she's ready to grow up

Ashley Wagner performs at the 2015 World Figure Skating Championships in Shanghai, China. Credit: Lintao Zhang/ISU/Getty

After the career she's had, Ashley Wagner probably could have benefited from a hospital stay and a well-chaperoned mental breakdown. But that's not her style. So instead, the figure skater opted for a tattoo of the Olympic rings strategically placed on her ribcage – where she'd been told the needle would really smart.

"You get to the Olympics and it's been such a painful road," she explains. "So there was no place more appropriate than right there on my left side."

She's not exaggerating. Five years ago at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane, Washington, Wagner missed the Olympic team by one place, earning her the nickname "The Almost Girl". As America's first alternate to the Vancouver Games, she was required to continue training with the slim chance that she would benefit from another skater's misfortune. But her U.S. teammates didn't break any bones, so she watched the two athletes who'd narrowly outskated her for six-and-a-half minutes in Spokane go to the one competition she'd been dreaming about for most of her life.

The next year, Wagner became tense enough that a muscle in her neck pushed a vertebrae out of alignment. She fell from third in the U.S. rankings to sixth, the lowest she'd ever placed. It was the kind of disappointment that could drive someone insane, so Wagner gave herself an insane ultimatum: She'd win the national title the next year or quit skating forever.

"I'm a numbers person; I go by hard facts and that's kind of what my brain processes as success," she says. "It's very much the 'military child' upbringing. I'm extremely competitive, and there's no shame in saying it. It's just who I am. I never want to settle for good. I want to settle for the best. That's my goal. I never really enter a competition just to get second place and be good. I enter a competition because I want to win."

She threw the money she'd been saving for college into a move across the country to train under the legendary John Nicks in California. And at the 2012 U.S. Championships, she didn't quit; she stood atop the podium as the best women's figure skater in America.

Wagner repeated as U.S. champ in 2013, and headed into the 2014 competition as a favorite to qualify for her first Olympics. Precedent said the top three competitors would be sent to the Sochi Games, and no one had seriously considered the possibility that she wouldn't make it. And then on January 11, 2014, Wagner spent two out of six triple jumps on her ass. By the end of the night, she was no longer U.S. Champion, placing fourth behind Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds and Mirai Nagasu. Once more, she was one place away from the Olympic team – or so it seemed.

The next day, the United States Figure Skating Association announced that in a break with tradition, it would not send the top three finishers from the U.S. Figure Skating Championships to Sochi, instead granting bids to the top two finishers, plus Wagner – and minus Nagasu. Japan had acted similarly, opting to send 2010 World Champion Daisuke Takahashi to the Olympics though he placed fifth at the Japanese Nationals. But the outcry over the Nagasu-Wagner decision was swift.

Most media coverage revolved around the fact that Wagner fell twice in the long program and Nagasu did not, while all other elements, in particular the Components Score, were ignored. These are aspects difficult for an outsider to judge. They're less flashy than a triple jump – or a fall on a triple jump. However the Components Score counts for half of the points awarded. It is also the portion of the score least likely to change, as it accounts for the quality of overall skating, criteria like speed and flow. Wagner scored 61.55 for Components at the U.S. Championships. Nagasu scored 60.68. In other words, even on a disastrous day, the judges considered Wagner's foundational skating superior to Nagasu's.

"At the National Championships, during an Olympic qualifying year, it's the one time in four years that people who know nothing about skating are watching skating," Wagner sighs. "So I had a bunch of people who are really uneducated about my career and what I've accomplished voicing their opinions."

More damning were the speculations. In Bitch magazine, Andi Zeisler suggested that Wagner was being sent to Sochi because of her endorsement deals with Nike and CoverGirl. Jeff Yang at the Wall Street Journal posited Nagasu was overlooked because her Japanese-American heritage offended some milkmaid American ideal, while "Wagner's flowing blond hair, bellflower-blue eyes and sculpted features mark her as a sporting archetype."

In Sochi, Wagner turned in a seventh-place performance, which is really very good, though not Wagner-metric good or medal-recognition good. Without an American podium placement, the biggest figure skating news story of the Olympics just may have been the #WagnerFace memes which pictured a post-short program Wagner gaping in remonstration at her scores before turning to her coach to mutter, "That's bullshit." There were criticisms, but she wasn't about to apologize:

"I don't put on a persona for people," Wagner says. "What you see is what you get, and I wear my heart on my sleeve. And I am a person that says 'bullshit.'"

It had been a year of a lot of bullshit. In comparison, the tattoo was a cakewalk. 

Then at this year's Nationals, Wagner got some vindication with a record-breaking performance, scoring 221.02. In her long program, she landed seven triple jumps, including two in combination. The second combination had been added this year to make her competitive with the technically superb Russian skaters should she make the world team. After the U.S. Championships, she admitted the Russians were "hands down the ones to beat" but also said she believed the American women could claim a medal at the Worlds in Shanghai. Only a fool would have failed to recognize there was one American woman in particular she wanted to see on the podium.

So Wagner did what she always does: she trained obsessively. During the time between Nationals and Worlds, she was certain that physical preparation would yield mental fortitude ("I come from a military upbringing," she says, "so the most sports psychology I ever got was from my dad. He just said, 'Don't be a wimp.'") The mantra had worked well enough that she'd become a three-time U.S. Champion, medalled at three prestigious Grand Prix competitions this season alone and now was the holder of the all-time high in American women's skating. Her goal of ending an eight-year medal drought at the World Championships seemed within reach.

Wagner had made a huge comeback at the U.S. Championships, but the problem with comebacks is they only work if the triumphant underdog keeps winning. And when Wagner arrived in Shanghai, nothing quite seemed right. The ice felt soft, which meant she had to expend much more energy to attain her usual speed. The boots of her skates seemed to have broken down too much, leaving little in the way of ankle support. She taped her boots to compensate for their structural weakness, but this stymied the give required for proper knee bend. "Everything together made me feel like I was working against Mount Everest," she says, recalling how she entered the short program feeling as though she was trying to save something.

The day of the short program, the first of two parts of the competition, Wagner stepped onto the ice as the last competitor. At the top of the scoreboard was Elizaveta Tuktamysheva. After winning the European Championship, this wasn't surprising. The fact she'd landed a perfect triple Axel, that elusive Holy Grail of triple jumps which has mostly confounded female figure skaters, was. Few are ballsy enough to try it. Fewer successfully complete the jump in competition. Tuktamysheva's was probably the best women's figure skating has ever seen: both explosive and airily assured. Without adjusting for grade of execution, this meant that Tuktamysheva would have more than a seven-point lead on Wagner – if Wagner skated perfectly.

As she glided to her starting position, the crowd recognized Wagner with a brief choral whoop. Wagner didn't appear to be breathing with full competence, but when the music began, she rounded the circumference of the rink purposefully for her first and most difficult element, the triple Lutz-triple toe loop. She landed the first jump and immediately sprang up for the second. But she didn't quite attain a full knee bend on her landing leg. As her right toe planted into the ice to launch her for the second jump, it was slightly too crossed behind her left, so that her free leg couldn't provide the pop necessary to achieve altitude. The jump's trajectory was curled to the point that the landing couldn't be "checked," skater parlance for the counter-rotation needed to effectively land a jump. She crashed hard. Seconds later, she'd fumble the landing of the double Axel, the easiest jump in her program. And just like that, Wagner found herself in 11th place.

She was furious with herself. Coach Rafael Arutyunyan agreed.

"He just looked at me and said, 'Why did you do that?'" Wagner says. "I didn't have an answer at the time, and he gave me this look – like if laser beams could come out of his eyes they would have. He was very quiet the next two days. It was kind of like when your parents are disappointed at you. They're not even mad; they're disappointed, and you feel so guilty for that. So that was definitely motivating, because I wanted to feel I was allowed to go home."

In the end, the long program was something like a homecoming for Wagner. The first two jumps of the program were the same ones she'd missed in the short, but this time, she landed them with confidence. "You will go for everything. You will fight. You will not give up," she had told herself before she took to the ice, and throughout the performance, her skating was muscular and aggressive. The judges awarded her third place in the second program, bringing her up to fifth place overall, a huge leap, but Wagner left Shanghai still hungry:

"I know I could've been on the podium if I'd put out two clean programs," she says. 

But the thing about Ashley Wagner is that she's kind of like a zombie; a very nice zombie with élan and poise, yet still impossible to beat back. You cannot defeat Ashley Wagner, because defeat only positions her for a feeding frenzy of success. It's her best quality, and perhaps her defining one, too.

"My entire career has been about resilience and about not having something go my way," she says. "Having to fight back and prove to people that I'm hungry for it and capable of being a national champion. I'm constantly having people tell me that I can't, that I'm not good enough, that I'm too old, that I'm not graceful enough. I've always just heard it and I've always just used that as fuel. There's nothing that I love doing more than proving people wrong."

She's good at it. It's what she did the year she fought from sixth to first in the nation. It's what she did to win back her title after what Emmitt Smith might call a debacled 2014. It's also what she did in the long program at this year's World Championships.

And unlike many of her competitors, Wagner's accomplishments were those of a financially independent adult. Wagner left home at 18, worked retail and now supports herself mainly through skating prize money and touring. This only intensifies the pressure for her to succeed in competition. At the same time, now 23, she is close to matronly in a sport of aerodynamic teenagers, and with eight seasons competing at the senior level, she's considered a veteran.

In the world of figure skating, "veteran" is a frightening word. It means you're pushing retirement because you're all the way into your twenties. Skating career-years are kind of like dog years, and Wagner is apt to talk about age in a way baffling to laypeople. She'll begin a sentence with "I may be 23, but…" ending in head-shaking disbelief with a clause about how she's still learning. Or else she'll self-deprecate by referring to herself as a 33 year old trapped in a 23-year-old's body.

"I moved nine times in ten years as a kid, so I was always the new kid, and I was painfully shy when I was younger," she says. "Skating was kind of this sense of home for me. It was the one consistent thing I had in my life."

And as such, even though she might be considered an elder statesman, she's not calling it quits any time soon. This is her house.

Immediate plans include a slew of Senior B competitions, where she'll be able to practice battering her nerves into submission, learning more intricate jump entries to max out points and perhaps even work on the triple Axel. She hasn't yet attempted one, but she and Arutyunyan have begun the preliminary exercises that she'll require if she's to master the jump. The triple Axel takes years for some to learn. Most female skaters never do. But the labor doesn't freak out Wagner; it's the rest of life that does.

"I feel like all of my friends are facing real life," she says. "As soon as they graduated college, it was real life, and I'm kind of living in this amazing fantasy world that I would never leave if I didn't have to."

For Wagner, after all, the ice is where she's found spectacular success. And even if there have been heartbreaking failures, even if skating has made her a high-level target for low blows, even if some performances have made her feel like an Almost Girl – she really does love figure skating, and she really does believe she can go from the Almost Girl to the All the Way Woman.

"I know in my gut that I am capable of becoming a world champion," she says. "I know in my gut that I am capable of being somebody that people remember, and I also know that right now I'm not that person. I'm sure nobody expects much of me beyond what I've done this year, but I know I can be world champion and it starts with me working my butt off this summer so that I can go into the next season and make everybody shut up."