NEW YORK — Ashley Wagner skated at the Olympics, the World Championships, under the pressure of defending U.S. Championships, but nothing could have prepared her for The Rink at Rockefeller Center on Friday morning.
The temperature? Single digits. It felt below zero.
Wagner spun around the ice in teeth-chattering conditions, her breath visible and her bare skin reddened. She wore a black dress with gloves, but no cover over her arms.
She finished the skate, opting not to perform jumps, and scurried off the ice, covering her cheeks with her gloves and enveloping into a zip-up jacket. Somebody standing just behind the boards asked if she’d ever skated in this type of weather.
Wagner raised her eyebrows and replied with emphasis.
“This is the coldest,” the Southern California resident said.
Later, Wagner regained the feeling to offer more words, warmed up in the TODAY green room.
“It was more a test of my mental strength than anything else,” she said. “There’s nothing comparable. Nothing even close to that. That was absolutely frigidly cold.
“The main concern with something like that is that you don’t get hurt. Your body can’t be warmed up to really be able to move the way it should for skating. You just kind of have to play it safe.”
Friday ushered in reportedly the coldest weekend in New York in two decades. The type of weather to enjoy an indoor fireplace with a loved one on Valentine’s Day, not to rapidly cut through the air on blades, with little clothing.
“You always know that it’s going to be cold because it’s an outdoor event,” Wagner said of scheduling the skate. “It’s during the dead of winter, but I think this is like unreasonably cold for this time of year. I didn’t expect that, but I feel like I can take on anything now.”
Which brings up Wagner’s next big skate, under completely different challenges. She enters the World Championships in Shanghai in March coming off two of the greatest performances of her career.
The 23-year-old leaped from sixth place to a bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final in December and captured her third U.S. title in Greensboro, N.C., in January.
She joined Irina Slutskaya, Michelle Kwan, Mao Asada and Yuna Kim as the only women to win medals at three straight Grand Prix Finals. Everyone in that quartet won at least silver in the Olympics.
She became the first woman since Kwan to win three U.S. titles. Kwan won nine.
“It’s still so weird for to even hear my name in the same sentence as [Kwan], let alone begin compared to her,” Wagner said. “Of course, it would be a dream come true to be even an ounce of what Michelle Kwan was, but I think I have so much work ahead of me to really be able to think about that. She accomplished so much and is a legend in the sport.”
Wagner said she is “absolutely” more confident going into these World Championships than any major international competition in her career. She skipped this past weekend’s Four Continents Championships to train and focus on Worlds.
Wagner felt she left points on the table with her spins at the U.S. Championships, where she shattered Nationals records for free skate and total scores.
“A lot of people called it the skate of a lifetime, and it was an incredible skate, no doubt, but I have more skates like that left in me,” Wagner said. “I think that I can improve on that.”
Wagner is seeking her first medal at a World Championships in her fifth appearance. She was fourth, fifth and seventh the last three years. No U.S. woman has won a medal at Worlds since 2006, the longest drought since World War I.
“The way Raf [coach Rafael Arutyunyan] has prepared me this entire season, I’ve been building and building, getting better and better,” Wagner said. “I need that time to make sure my technical arsenal is stronger than ever and secure. That way, under pressure, up against the Russian fleet, I’ll be able to hold my own.”
Wagner knows the medal favorites in Shanghai will be led by Russians. Wagner successfully kept them from a podium sweep at the Grand Prix Final and must beat at least one of them again to make the podium in Shanghai.
She will be boosted by the presence in Shanghai of close friend Adam Rippon, the U.S. silver medalist who roomed with Wagner at Nationals and helped choreograph her short program. They’re both competing at Worlds for the first time since 2012.
“It’s like a little bit of home,” Wagner said. “To have that one person who knows everything about me, has seen the way I’ve prepared for competition, someone to calm me down, it’s really been a tool for me. I think that was part of the key to my success in Greensboro.”