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Former Alaskan recommits to figure skating and Olympic dreams

Jere LongmanThe New York Times
Shizuo Kambayashi

BOSTON -- Even now, as a candidate for an Olympic medal four years later, former Eagle River resident Ashley Wagner cannot watch her stumbling performance. She has tried, but she always feels the drop in her stomach.

At the 2010 U.S. figure skating championships, Wagner crumpled on a triple lutz in her short program. She got to her feet and kept telling herself, "I didn't just fall, I didn't just fall."

Despite the stunned denial, she had. And the points deduction became critical. Wagner finished third, and the U.S. had only two qualifying spots available for women at the Vancouver Olympics. At 18, she was devastated.

A year later, she finished sixth at the 2011 national championships, adrift, lacking direction and motivation, bothered by a racing heartbeat and by full-body spasms caused by muscle tension in her neck.

At 19, she gave herself an ultimatum. She would win the 2012 national title or give up skating and get on with her college life. In June 2011, she changed coaches, moved from Delaware to Southern California, worked briefly at a jeans store and subsisted for a time on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

"She said, 'I don't want to stay in the sport too long'" and not be able to let go, said Ashley's mother, Melissa James, a retired teacher. "So she made a commitment. She took responsibility, financially and individually, for her own skating. She knew she wasn't going to make it selling Lucky jeans."

Her career in sales ended quickly. Wagner won the 2012 and 2013 national championships. And she will be favored again this year, renewing her attempt to make the Olympic team, beginning with Thursday's short program. She is 22 now, a confident young woman, no longer an uncertain teenager.

"I love this type of environment," Wagner said in October at Skate America. "I'm a show pony."

In an Olympic year, especially in a sport in which athletes are judged, many skaters turn inward, becoming timid, not wanting to rock the boat or risk fragile assurance. Wagner has remained forthcoming, criticizing an anti-gay law passed in Russia ahead of the Sochi Olympics. She has spoken candidly about her desire to win an Olympic medal. She seems relaxed, wanting to enjoy the experience instead of being intimidated by the pressure.

In 2010, she said, "by the time I got to nationals, I was this nervous ball of energy and I couldn't control myself."

Asked if she had since consulted a sports psychologist, Wagner said that, no, she had relied on the unvarnished advice of her father, Eric, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army. He told her simply, "Don't be a wimp."

When Wagner felt sorry for herself and the gustatory limitations of peanut butter and jelly, her father reminded her, "In college, I ate ramen noodles every day; you have two more ingredients than I had. You're lucky."

Her coach in Southern California, the estimable John Nicks, was equally blunt in repairing the artistic and technical aspects of Wagner's skating. She began practicing in front of a mirror and learned to project emotion beyond the judges to the audience. And she took a mathematical approach to her jumping through repetition and counting the number of lutzes completed successfully during training.

"In my mind, if I have a 98 percent success ratio, I can go into a competition and know that I have that practice behind me and there's numbers to support it," Wagner said in December before an exhibition in East Rutherford, N.J. "I'm very much a technical person. When someone gives me a solid fact, I can believe in that more than saying to myself, I've done it a lot so I think I'm OK."

She began skating during recess at age 5 in Eagle River on a flooded and frozen school parking lot. Her mother gave her the choice of skating or ballet. "I was very much a tomboy," Wagner said. "I just couldn't do the pink ballet tutus."

Because of her elegant looks, Wagner is often portrayed as a cover girl type, but she readily admits that she is not a soft, graceful skater. Rather she is powerful and athletic, strong instead of delicate.

"I never want to be perceived as a porcelain doll," she said.

As this Olympic season unfurled, Wagner rethought her approach in the long program, skated to Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet." Once, she thought of Juliet as a victim of star-crossed love. Now she views her as strong-willed, unwavering in her pursuit of Romeo, however tragically.

"I never want to be a victim; I'm way too hardheaded to be that delicate," Wagner said. "I was getting bored, so I tried to mix up my interpretation. Juliet, as someone who won't take no for an answer, is going to be with Romeo no matter what the cost, that helps me connect to the character a lot more. It's hard to relate to a 14-year-old girl, especially when you're 22. I went through my awkward teenage years. I don't want to go back."

With Nicks now 84 and declining to travel, Wagner is being coached by Rafael Arutunian. She has added a triple-triple combination jump to elevate her technical rigor. And she has sought to improve her endurance by completing a program in training and immediately running through the second half again.

Over the past four years, she has also sought to broaden her interests beyond skating to paddle boarding and hiking, and to widen her circle of friends, to avoid being consumed by skating.

"The last Olympic season, it got into my head - I have to eat, breathe, sleep the Olympics," Wagner said. "That's actually a very miserable way to go about it. I need to have something beyond the rink so that if I have a bad day on the ice, my life isn't crumbling around me."

At the Grand Prix final, an important Olympic tuneup in December in Japan, Wagner fell in the long program on the triple lutz, which usually involves a long, diagonal approach and requires lifting off from the back outside edge of one skate and landing on the back outside edge of the other. The fall left Wagner cautious, and she under-rotated her combination jump. But she was resourceful enough to hold on for third place.

The Sochi Olympics will not likely be so forgiving. Kim Yu-na of South Korea, the 2010 Olympic champion, and Mao Asada of Japan, the reigning silver medalist, will be in a field that also includes Carolina Kostner of Italy, the 2012 world champion, and young, emerging Russian skaters.

By her own admission, Wagner is likely to need "to be perfect" to reach the Olympic medal podium.

"Kim and Mao are incredible athletes," she said. "The judges see them as superior. It's an uphill battle to begin with. I will not be forgiven for my mistakes. I have to be better than my best."

She feels mature enough now to handle the pressure of expectation.

"She's just a fighter," said Brian Boitano, the 1988 Olympic champion. "You shouldn't count her out."

 


By JERE LONGMAN
The New York Times