Ashley Wagner: From Almost Girl to All the Way Woman
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.
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