SOCHI, Russia – Suddenly Team USA is fighting an uphill battle in the new Olympic figure skating team event. And where does its hopes rest? Squarely on the shoulders of Ashley Wagner.
A disappointing night left the medal-favored Americans outside the top three in a tie for fifth (and technically in seventh overall) with Wagner and the ice dance team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White to skate their short programs Saturday night.
The new Olympic team figure skating event features ten teams, but only five which will advance to the free skate portion of the competition. With two-time world champions Davis/White almost assured a first- or second-place finish in the short dance, Wagner, the most controversial member of Team USA, needs to skate her best in the short program.
“This will be her moment to rise to the challenge and prove to everyone that she deserves to be here,” said Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion and an NBC analyst.
“It’s on her shoulders,” added former Olympian Johnny Weir, also a commentator for NBC. “Our hopes rest on the one skater who caused the most controversy by being here.”
Wagner hasn’t officially been announced for Saturday night’s ladies’ short program, though she has been in Sochi all week practicing her short program.
Wagner was caught in controversy following the U.S. Championships last month when she finished in fourth place, but was chosen for the team because of her success on the international stage, including three Grand Prix medals this past season.
Wagner has a stronger international profile than the Canadian, Chinese, German and French skaters who will potentially start above her Saturday. The short dance will be held before the ladies’ short program that night.
The U.S. finds itself in such a struggle after four-time champion Jeremy Abbott had a dismal night, falling on his opening quadruple jump before popping a triple Axel into a single. Pairs team Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir made up some ground, placing fifth in their segment.
“Looking at what happened tonight, that’s not what we expected,” Lipinski said. “Jeremy had a rough night, but we still have a chance.”
Wagner has long expressed her affinity for her Pink Floyd “Shine on Me Crazy Diamond” short program, which opens with a triple-triple combination and showcases the 22-year-old’s tough, aggressive skating.
“It’s Ashley’s chance to say, ‘I am woman, hear me roar,’” Weir said.
After long being talked as one of the favorites for the inaugural team event, the U.S. is left outside looking in. Numerically, the Americans would have to crumble not to make the free skate portion of the competition, most likely hop-scotching China and Germany, who are weak in the ladies and ice dance segments.
“I think it’s anybody’s game,” said Shnapir after his skate with Castelli. “We have two great disciplines coming up and I think we have the opportunity to pull up and to get up to that top tier and I think that’s where we’re going to end up.”
It was a horror of a night for Abbott, the four-time national champion scoring a 65.65, some 30 points below his marks at Nationals a month ago.
“I’m torn apart that I did that for Team USA,” Abbott said after his short program. “I really wanted to pull out a win here for us and help us earn a medal – perhaps even a gold. I’ve let them down.”
Wagner – along with Davis and White – are expected to be announced for the team short programs at a press conference Friday.