Ashley Wagner: ‘The end is in sight’

Ashley Wagner
AP
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Ashley Wagner has spoken openly during the ups and downs of the last few seasons about questioning how much longer she’ll skate and what exactly she wants to accomplish as her career winds down.

“The end is in sight,” Wagner said Friday. “That creates a whole new type of pressure.”

Wagner, 24, will carry the title of defending champion into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Paul, Minn., next week, where she eyes her fourth total National crown.

She can become the oldest U.S. women’s champion since Maribel Vinson in 1937, but Wagner spoke more Friday about her international standing.

“I want that World title,” she said. “I think that’s a tall order, by far, but I also think that if I go out and put out a solid program and performance, technically, I think that’s not entirely out of the question.”

Wagner has finished fourth, fifth, seventh and fifth at the World Championships the last four years. No U.S. woman has made an Olympic or Worlds podium since 2006, the longest drought since World War I.

The World Championships are in Boston in a little more than two months, creating the incentive for home-ice advantage to end the medal drought.

In the past two years, Wagner has said she’ll continue to skate as long as she can physically and mentally push through it and stressed that she won’t be “old” at age 26 during the 2018 Olympics.

She’s pointed to 2010 Olympic silver medalist Mao Asada and 2014 Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner as examples of successful, mature skaters. Asada is 25. Kostner is 28. Neither has retired.

“I’m getting better every year,” said Wagner, who shattered U.S. Championships scoring records last January and, in the fall, broke her personal short program and free skate bests in international competitions. “I’m pushing my limits. … I know that I’m capable of much, much more.”

The U.S. title is expected to come down to Wagner and 20-year-old Gracie Gold, who have finished within two spots of each other at each of the last three World Championships.

Wagner and Gold placed fourth and fifth, respectively, at the Grand Prix Final in December, behind Russian winner Yevgenia Medvedeva (16 years old), Japan’s Satoko Miyahara (17) and Russian Yelena Radionova (17).

Wagner joked that recent Russian teenage champions last for about three years, “and then a new top Russian comes through.”

“I’ve been at the senior level, essentially for 10 years,” Wagner said. “I’ve been skating for almost 20. Skating has been a huge chapter in my life. It’s completely natural at this point to kind of have those moments of doubt because I feel like, everywhere I look, there’s a newer, fresher, younger skater, who is coming up that is technically sound and solid and practically undefeatable. It’s never-ending, so I think that for me, I am always having to work that much harder to stay relevant, to stay in shape, to keep on pushing the envelope. I know that 24 isn’t old, but at the same for this sport, it’s not young.”

Wagner, a military brat, calls herself “stubborn” and “hard-headed.”

That’s helped her overcome tearful performances, most recently a last-place short program at the Grand Prix Final in December that, again, left her questioning why she continues to compete.

The next day, Wagner broke her international-best score for a free skate, missing the podium by 1.32 points.

“I really don’t think that any other top lady has improved as much as I have at my age,” she said.

MORE: Gracie Gold doesn’t expect to compete as long as Ashley Wagner

Novak Djokovic wins 10th Australian Open, ties Rafael Nadal for most men’s Slam titles

Novak Djokovic Australian Open
Getty
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Novak Djokovic beat Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-3, 7-6, 7-6 to win his record-extending 10th Australian Open title and tie Rafael Nadal for the men’s record of 22 Grand Slam singles titles.

Djokovic regained the world No. 1 ranking, one year after being deported from Australia over his refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

He can pass Nadal, and take sole possession of the men’s Slam titles record, at the French Open, where Nadal has won a record 14 titles, starting in late May.

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Chock/Bates, Knierim/Frazier futures unclear after clear-cut wins at figure skating nationals

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SAN JOSE, California – They have both begun the new Olympic cycle as the undisputed national leaders in their figure skating disciplines, cementing that status with U.S. titles Saturday – the fourth for ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates, the second for the pairs’ team of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier.

At this point, their respective paths to the 2026 Winter Games seem free and clear of challengers.

The question for the dancers and the pair is how far down that road they intend to go.

“I don’t know what the next four years will hold,” Chock said. “But we’re committed to each other and our goals, and we’ll decide when the time comes.”

Chock, 30, and Bates, 33, engaged to be married in the summer of 2024, have been at this a long time. And their trophy case is packed to the gills, with the only gaps a world title and an individual Olympic medal.

They have competed together at the senior level in the U.S. Championships for 12 seasons, winning medals at the last 11. They have been to nine world championships, winning three medals, and three Olympics (four for Bates), winning a yet-to-be-awarded team medal last year in Beijing.

(The unresolved doping case involving Russian skater Kamila Valiyeva has delayed the awarding of the 2022 team event medals. Maybe it will become a wedding present for Chock and Bates. Or a fifth anniversary present…)

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Until this year, Chock and Bates had faced formidable rivals on the national scene – 2014 Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White; 2018 Olympic bronze medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani; and 2022 Olympic bronze medalists Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, with whom Chock and Bates traded gold medals over the previous four seasons. All have retired from competition.

Saturday, they cruised to the gold medal by 22.29 points over Caroline Green and Michael Parsons, the largest ice dance victory margin at nationals since 2006. In a discipline where established hierarchy weighs heavily, Chock and Bates find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being on a metaphorical easy street to the top step of the U.S. podium.

“We – at least I – felt nervous today,” Bates said. “We (still) felt compelled to skate well. The lack of maybe the Hubbell-Donohue back and forth did not mitigate the specialness today.”

Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 30, have similar longevity at nationals, even if they did not team up until 2020, taking the U.S. title in their first season together.

Knierim skated at seven nationals with her husband, Chris, winning three titles, Frazier at seven with Haven Denney, winning once.

Knierim and Frazier had expected to retire after last season, when they missed nationals because Frazier contracted Covid but went on to place sixth at the Olympics and unexpectedly became the first U.S. team to win a pairs’ world title since 1979. Their experiences on the Stars on Ice Tour led them to reconsider.

“It made sense on our timeline to move on,” Knierim told me in September. “We had done everything we could in two years.

“Yet it felt like it could be sad or disappointing to end a really talented career together so soon. Being on tour had opened our eyes to how in synch and unified we were on the ice. So there was a little bit of curiosity, a feeling of ‘What else are we capable of?’”

Their personal circumstances have changed during the course of this season. Chris Knierim starts work Thursday as skating director of a rink in the Chicago suburbs, and the Knierims recently bought a house in that area.

Knierim and Frazier have been training at a rink in Irvine, California. Should they decide to continue as competitors after this season, it would almost certainly entail a move to Chicago for Frazier.

Knierim insisted her house purchase was not an indication of what her plans with Frazier are.

“Right now, we are staying the course, based in Irvine through the world championships (in late March),” Knierim said before winning her fifth U.S. title.

“We do have some changes ahead of us. But I’d hate to jump ahead and say yes or no to next season. We learned that last season.”

Frazier spoke Saturday of reflecting throughout this season about their personal journeys and their partnership, the kind of reflection that often accompanies doing something for the last time.

“We just are trying to soak it in as if it could be your last, but the future is unknown,” Frazier said.

Knierim and Frazier prevailed Saturday with the largest winning margin, 31.11 points, in the 18 years that the International Judging System has been used at nationals.

They saved several points due to her quick thinking.

After Frazier put his hand to the ice on the triple toe loop that was to open a triple-double-double-jump combination, Knierim saw that her partner was going to follow with only a single jump and followed suit. It led to the delightful oddity of side-by-side single toe loops.

Nicely executed ones, too.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.

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