If this is the year the U.S. women end their medal drought, Ashley Wagner is the favored skater to make the podium at the World Championships next week.
“I need to prove now more than ever that I belong,” Wagner said Monday, pausing before finishing her thought, “and I think Nationals definitely did that for me.”
Wagner, 23, is a military brat who takes pleasure in continuing to skate after her critics called her to step aside for the next generation of teens to pass her by.
Her best career performances came this season, rallying for bronze at the Grand Prix Final in December and reclaiming the U.S. title at Nationals in January, shattering records for her third crown.
Wagner now leads an American trio into the World Championships in Shanghai, looking to keep dominant Russia from a one-two-three sweep and to capture the first U.S. women’s medal since 2006.
How will she pull that off?
“I need to get all the levels on my spins and my footwork and have a clean-edge [triple] Lutz,” Wagner said. “I know that it’s going to be a little bit more difficult at Worlds because it’s going to be compared against many, many flawless triple Lutzes. So I’m going need to make sure that that outside edge is very clear. And the triple-triple [jump] combination, which I think at the past couple competitions I’ve shown I’m really capable of doing it. Now I just really need to consistently keep on delivering it.”
The mountain is high to overtake the two best Russians — Elizaveta Tuktamysheva and Yelena Radionova. Wagner landed seven triple jumps in a clean free skate at the Grand Prix Final and still scored more than five points fewer than Tuktamysheva and Radionova.
But the bronze medal may be up for grabs, as it was at the Grand Prix Final.
The third Russian, Anna Pogorilaya, fell in both of her Grand Prix Final programs and then finished more than 17 points behind Tuktamysheva and Radionova at the European Championships in January.
Nobody in the women’s field next week comes in already owning an Olympic or World Championships individual medal.
Wagner counters the Russians with experience they can’t match. This will be her fifth World Championships appearance.
“I can offer a level of emotional connection to my performances,” Wagner said. “I’ve lived through it all.”
Wagner will also be competing against countrywomen Gracie Gold, the top American last year in the Olympic season, and Polina Edmunds, coming off a breakthrough victory at the Four Continents Championship in February.
They are the same three women who finished fifth (Gold), seventh (Wagner) and eighth (Edmunds) at the 2014 World Championships, one month after they made up the U.S. team in Sochi.
It’s a rare window of consistency for the U.S., which fell behind Japan and then Russia in the last decade. It’s cyclical, Wagner said.
“It’s kind of like how training hubs change as years go by,” Wagner said. “Colorado Springs is a training hub. Then Boston is a training hub. It’s just a natural process for different countries to be stronger at different times. Japan was reigning with Mao Asada for a long time. Right now, they’re building up their junior ladies field. … Russia had a drought for a very long time. Now look at them. … I know that for the U.S. it’s uncommon to have such a long drought, but I think that we now finally have a very talented field.”
Russia had zero women in the top seven at the 2010 Olympics. Japan, with Asada taking the year off and perhaps done for good, is not expected to factor into the medals next week.
In January 2014, Wagner was in tears after she finished fourth at the U.S. Championships but was picked for the Olympic team over third-place Mirai Nagasu due to her stronger recent résumé.
In February 2014, she became best known at the Olympics for an Internet meme.
Now, Wagner gushes about her sport.
“I am madly in love with skating,” she said. “As long as I can physically and mentally push through this sport, I’ll be around.”
She hopes that a World Championships medal will not be the cherry on top of her career. She wants more.
“The whole reason I’m in this sport is to get that Olympic medal,” said Wagner, who does own a Sochi team event bronze but was seventh individually. “[If I win a Worlds medal] I think I would start thinking ahead, start planning to figure out how I would try to take over the world.”