Ashley Wagner is aware of her critics. Many say she is past her prime at age 23 and should hang up her skates.
“Anybody who looks down upon some old gal going after her dreams, I have many things to say to them,” Wagner said, “but I will just say watch me do it.”
Wagner, who finished seventh at the Olympics and at March’s World Championships, plans to compete through the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics. She could become the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles figure skater since 1928, according to sports-reference.com.
“So what, I’m going to be 26 at the next Olympics,” she said. “That’s not old. I will probably, for myself, be in my physical prime around then.”
For the second straight year, Wagner is the only U.S. singles skater competing in the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest international event this season behind the World Championships. She will perform in Barcelona next week.
It’s her third straight trip and fourth overall to the event that invites the top six skaters per discipline over the six-event Grand Prix series. Nine-time U.S. champion Michelle Kwan is the only U.S. woman to make more Grand Prix Finals than Wagner in the event’s two-decade history.
Kwan won her last U.S. title at 24. Wagner, who turns 24 in May, believes she will not only be physically stronger in the years to come but also will mature mentally.
“I’m going to be a late bloomer,” she said, pointing to Italian Carolina Kostner, who won Olympic and World Championships bronze medals last season at age 27.
Wagner hopes to hush the critics, who had reason to grow louder last winter.
Wagner fell from fourth and fifth at the 2012 and 2013 World Championships to seventh in Sochi and seventh again at 2014 Worlds in March (where neither the Olympic gold or silver medalist competed).
Back in January, she relinquished her U.S. Championship to Gracie Gold, who is four years younger. She was also beaten there by Polina Edmunds, who is seven years younger. Wagner finished fourth at nationals but still was selected for the three-woman U.S. Olympic team because of her unrivaled record among U.S. women’s skaters the previous two seasons.
She received heavy criticism and said in January she would give up social media “cold turkey” during the Olympics, though she did end up posting from Sochi.
She has been the most consistent U.S. women’s skater this season, placing second and third in her two Grand Prix series events. Certainly, she could retake the U.S. Championship in January from Gold, who will miss the Grand Prix Final with a small stress fracture but expects to be fine for nationals.
One thing hasn’t changed this season. Wagner still sees critics tag her with negative comments.
“Every now and then, I will choose a person on Twitter to kind of respond to, to send a warning to the rest of the people that I will stand up for myself,” said Wagner, who retweeted this tweet. “I will shame them if they are ridiculously rude to me.”
Wagner will face a different type of competition next week than she remembered from her first Grand Prix Final in 2009.
Four of her five competitors are Russians who are 17 and younger. Wagner said she needed to “tip-toe” through an answer when asked to compare this era and that of South Korean Yuna Kim and Japanese Mao Asada a few years ago.
“Mao and Yuna Kim, to me, they were something absolutely incredible, and they had this total package,” she said. “They had this individual persona. I think that the difference between that era and the one that we’re in right now is all of these Russian girls right now, who knows, maybe as time goes on they’ll start to stand out individually a bit more, but everyone kind of sees them as one big chunk of Russian girls skating. Mao and Yuna really were able to create their own individual legacy. I think that’s kind of the difference between where we are now and back then.”
Wagner applauds the Russians’ talent and work ethic. She even envies them. She’ll have to overcome them to win her first Grand Prix Final title in her fourth try.
“An entire country gives them apartments and perfect ice time, and everything is really worked out perfectly for them,” she said. “It would be nice to live a day in the Russians’ shoes.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Wagner is the only U.S. singles skater to make the either of the last two Grand Prix Finals. Gold qualified this year but withdrew with a foot injury.