The U.S. waited 10 years for a woman to win a figure skating medal. Ashley Wagner waited nearly that long herself.
Wagner hit a crescendo of a tumultuous career at a veteran 24 years old, becoming the oldest U.S. woman to capture her first World Championships medal in Boston on Saturday night.
It was silver. It snapped the longest Olympic/Worlds medal drought since the first Winter Games in 1924 in America’s marquee Winter Olympic sports event.
Wagner finished 8.47 points behind record-breaking Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva, who at 16 became the first singles skater to win junior and senior World titles in back-to-back years.
Another Russian, Anna Pogorilaya, took bronze. Short-program leader Gracie Gold plummeted to fourth place as the penultimate skater before Wagner brought the house down.
Wagner earned that silver medal. She landed all seven triple jumps (with two under-rotations) for the second-best score of the night behind Medvedeva, who broke Yuna Kim‘s 2010 Olympic record for free skate points.
Wagner recorded personal-best short program, free skate and total scores while performing in an arena that housed the lowest point of her career two years earlier.
“My two experiences in here were equally as traumatic,” said Wagner, who pointed at her silver medal in the press conference to emphasize the drought’s end. “This is definitely the one I will cherish for the rest of my life.”
In January 2014, Wagner finished fourth at the U.S. Championships at TD Garden and agonized that Saturday night over whether she would be on the three-woman Olympic roster announced the following day.
She had already earned the nickname “Almost Girl” for finishing third at the 2010 U.S. Championships to miss that two-woman Olympic team.
Wagner was named to the Sochi team due to her strong national and international results in recent seasons, criteria laid out by U.S. Figure Skating well in advance of the competition. Still, many believed third-place Mirai Nagasu deserved the place.
“I have so many people that for so many parts of my career say that this has been given to me, I don’t deserve this,” Wagner said. “I have so many people who doubt why I’m still here. … I have a World silver medal because of something I did, not because of something everyone else didn’t do. That is so sweet.”
At the Garden this past week, Wagner found motivation in a picture on a wall. It depicted the 2014 U.S. Championships podium of four women (yes, four, Wagner was a pewter medalist). However, Wagner was cropped out of the picture.
“Maybe they’ll post up this podium next time for memorable moments of the building,” she joked.
Wagner’s skating from Sochi up until Saturday night had been hit-and-miss. At the Olympics, she bagged a bronze medal in the team event but was most remembered for the face she made when her unsatisfying score came up. She also finished seventh individually.
Wagner came back to take her third U.S. title and her third straight Grand Prix Final medal last season, but she placed seventh and fifth on the grander Worlds stage in 2014 and 2015. She couldn’t put together two straight strong programs in major international competition.
This week, Wagner told best friend and U.S. champion Adam Rippon she felt nervous before the short program. He sat her down and reminded her of the 2014 U.S. Championships.
“I came into that Nationals overweight, out of shape, undertrained, really just hoping for the best,” Wagner said. “I came into this in shape, ready to go, and I knew what I had to do. I’m a totally different athlete, but because of 2014 I’m sitting here today.”
The result? Personal best short program, fourth place, in contention for a medal.
She felt “terrified” on Saturday, in a “panic” and “freaking out” moments before taking the ice.
“Because I knew that something had happened in Gracie’s performance,” Wagner said of Gold, who fell on her opening jump combination and finished fourth at Olympics or Worlds a third straight year. “I realized, oh my god, there’s an opening. Maybe I can get onto this podium. Then I realized, in that moment, freaking out about maybe getting onto a podium wasn’t going to do anything for me.”
Her coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, instructed her. It’s there, you just need to go do it.
“And that’s exactly what I went out and did,” Wagner said. “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
Medvedeva, meanwhile, was notified afterward of her record-breaking skate by an arena interviewer with a microphone, so that her response could be heard by the 10,000-plus in attendance.
“Wow,” she said after laughing. That was her only word of English in the interview.
“This is probably the biggest audience that I’ve faced, ever,” Medvedeva said later, through a translator. “And I heard a lot of shouts out in Russian supporting me, which was an incredible experience. I realized that some of these people came especially to watch me and traveled so far.”
Medvedeva and Pogorilaya continued a trend of Russian dominance in the event. In the 2014 Olympics and 2014, 2015 and 2016 Worlds, half of the women’s medals have been won by six different Russians.
On Saturday, Medvedeva bettered Kim’s legendary record free skate score from the 2010 Olympics by .04. Kim still holds the overall record score of 228.56, which Medvedeva can shoot for next season.
However, Medvedeva should beware as the gold could be a curse. Neither Russia’s 2014 Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova nor 2015 World champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva has returned to form since their triumphs.
Then there’s Gold, who has nine times competed at the Olympics, Worlds, Grand Prix Final and Four Continents Championships and finished between fourth and sixth every time.
Her early fall and later doubling a planned triple Lutz cost her Saturday. She missed joining Wagner on the podium by 2.4 points.
“I feel really ashamed of how I skated and I want to apologize to my country and to the crowd here — there’s really no excuse for it,” Gold said, according to an International Skating Union press release. “It just shows that I’m not up there with the rest of the world.”
World Championships Women
GOLD: Yevgenia Medvedeva (RUS) — 223.86
SILVER: Ashley Wagner (USA) — 215.39
BRONZE: Anna Pogorilaya (RUS) — 213.69
4. Gracie Gold (USA) — 211.29
10. Mirai Nagasu (USA) — 186.65