Ashley Wagner, ‘a mess’ in most recent event, still the favorite at U.S. Champs

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Ashley Wagner goes into her 10th senior U.S. Championships next week with a lengthy two months of rest since her last competition, which happened to be the worst outing of her Grand Prix career.

Usually, Wagner would have skated at the Grand Prix Final in December, but because she finished a career-low sixth at a Grand Prix event in China in November, she failed to qualify for the six-skater Grand Prix Final for the first time since 2011.

All Wagner needed was a fourth place in China to book a final berth. That shouldn’t have been a very difficult task, given she took a world championships silver medal last season and won Skate America in October. Wagner was riding the best skating of her career into Beijing.

But her old nemesis, under-rotating jumps, emerged in China. She finished outside the top five for the first time in her 25 Grand Prix starts dating to 2007.

“I was really furious with myself for blowing an opportunity that was right there, and the door was wide open for me [to qualify for the Grand Prix Final],” Wagner said Tuesday, adding that she was mentally and physically tired in China, leading to “a mess” of a performance. “I could either be mad and sit at home and watch these girls, know that I can compete with them, [or] work harder so that going to worlds I can be a top athlete that is competitive with these up-and-coming ladies.”

The second half of Wagner’s season begins with next week’s U.S. Championships in Kansas City, where the now-relaxed skater hopes to win a fourth title in six years.

She went about a new technique of training jumps to increase her quick-twitch motion, hopefully leading to fully rotating them consistently.

“Mentally, I’m feeling very confident,” Wagner said. “At this point in my career it is very easy for me to get mentally worn out and worn down, but I usually feel strongest when my training is backing me up and when I know that I am physically fit.”

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The 25-year-old is the oldest and most accomplished contender in a weakened field.

Defending U.S. champion Gracie Gold struggled mightily in the fall. Polina Edmunds, the U.S. silver medalist last season, hasn’t competed in one year due to a foot injury and has already pulled out of nationals.

But Wagner, perhaps still thinking about China, wouldn’t say she’s the favorite.

“The door is wide open for everyone,” she said. “I think that there is no obvious or clear front-runner. … I’m competing against myself, because I’m usually my own worst enemy at nationals. If I think about everybody else, that’s not going to help me.”

U.S. Figure Skating will choose three women after nationals to send to the world championships in Helsinki in March. Wagner will make a sixth straight worlds team with a top-three finish in Kansas City, and perhaps still be selected with a lower result.

Kansas City is a bit of a homecoming for Wagner. It’s one of the nine places she lived in a 10-year span growing up in a military family. She says it’s where her Olympic dream began, watching on TV as Tara Lipinski took gold at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games when Wagner was 6.

Wagner realized that dream by making the Sochi Olympic team — despite finishing fourth at nationals. She doesn’t intend for her career to end at next year’s Olympics.

“That puts so much pressure on an athlete to make it a dream season of all seasons,” Wagner said of making retirement plans. “If I feel like I’m still building and still improving, and I have something left to give, then by all means I’m going to keep on skating, because that’s how crazy I am about this sport. At the same time, I’m not the kind of athlete, I don’t ever want to be around long enough to watch my career dwindle out. So, for me, I’ll know when the time comes, but I’m not planning on retiring after the Olympics.”

MORE: Polina Edmunds out of U.S. Championships