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Ashley Wagner details dropping ‘La La Land’ free skate

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Ashley Wagner, the pre-eminent U.S. female figure skater of the last decade, changed her mind on one of the most significant decisions a skater can make going into the Olympic season.

Wagner, the 2016 World silver medalist and three-time U.S. champion, tossed out the new free skate she had been working on last month.

It was set to music from “La La Land,” which earned a record-tying 14 Academy Award nominations earlier this year and won six Oscars (and, briefly, infamously, a seventh for Best Picture).

Now, she’s back to music from “Moulin Rouge.” It accompanied her free skate in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.

Those years, Wagner posted the highest free skate scores in U.S. Championships history and for an American in international competition history.

“I really did love the [‘La La Land’] program,” Wagner said Wednesday, while promoting the Dick’s Sporting Goods Contenders program, which employs 41 Winter Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls for the PyeongChang Winter Games.

“I was very passionate about what I was doing,” she continued. “I started training it day to day, and the music is beautiful. But just something wasn’t quite clicking, and the character didn’t really feel as complicated as I wanted her to be. There really didn’t feel like there was much of an emotional range. And I love drama. I love having those moments.”

The return to “Moulin Rouge” came abruptly as Wagner described it. One day at practice in early August, she consulted her steely coach, Armenian Rafael Arutyunyan.

“Is this program good?” Wagner asked.

“Yeah, it’s a really good program,” Arutyunyan responded.

“Is it good enough? Is this going to get me through the Olympics?” she pressed.

Arutyunyan told Wagner to put “Moulin Rouge” music on and skate.

“I made it to the first double Axel in the program,” Wagner said. “He turns off the program, and he goes, this is the program I want you to do.”

Wagner agreed.

“It’s my Olympic moment,” she said Wednesday, “and this is the person I want to be at the Olympics.”

Wagner, who lives and trains in Southern California, said publicly as far back as February that she wanted to skate to “La La Land” at the Olympics. Skaters usually wait until after the preceding season ends in early spring to announce program music for the following season.

But Wagner was so enamored that she texted her choreographer from a movie theater to say she had chosen “La La Land” for her Olympic free skate.

Wagner’s 11-year senior international career is marked by ups and downs, tears and several concussions. She identified with the film’s theme of hope.

“I love the music. I still do,” she said. “I just think that it was very much like an inspirational kind of a setup. I loved that. I loved the choreography. I can’t speak highly enough of the music. But I just know myself, and I know that after a couple of months of just one emotion, I get bored.”

Two weeks after the switch, Wagner performed to “Moulin Rouge” at last month’s U.S. Figure Skating’s Champs Camp. At Champs Camp, skaters receive preseason feedback from officials on programs before debuting them in competition.

“I gave them the opportunity to see ‘La La Land’ if they wanted to, but everyone at U.S. Figure Skating was very supportive of my decision,” Wagner said.

Wagner said she will make her Olympic season debut at a small, local event. She won’t say where or when it will be. Her international season debut is at Skate Canada the last weekend of October.

She’s gearing up for the U.S. Championships in January, after which three women will be named to the Olympic team. That team will be chosen by a committee based on results not only at nationals but also previous top-level competitions.

Wagner is familiar with the selection process.

She was the top U.S. woman in fall 2009 but finished third at the 2010 U.S. Championships and was left off the two-woman Olympic team.

Wagner was fourth at the 2014 U.S. Championships and placed on the three-woman Olympic team over third-place finisher Mirai Nagasu. Wagner earned that spot based on performing the best of all U.S. women nationally and internationally the previous year.

Now 26 years old, Wagner can become the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s singles skater since 1928.

Wagner wants to separate from her own past this season, even as she performs to music associated with some of the biggest triumphs of her career.

Skating to “Moulin Rouge” again last month, “made me feel like the athlete that I was at 2016 Worlds, so that definitely made me feel nostalgic,” she said, referencing moving from fourth to second in the free skate in Boston to become the first U.S. world medalist in a decade. “Maybe that’s why I like this program so much.”

But judges may want to see something new.

So Wagner added professional dancer Benji Schwimmer to her choreography team. Schwimmer has worked with Wagner’s best friend and training partner Adam Rippon.

“This is a new season,” Wagner said, “and hopefully somewhat of a new version of Moulin Rouge.”

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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Kenya’s best to race Norway’s best on different continents in June track meet

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Kenya’s top 1500m man is expected to run with a team in Nairobi. Norway’s fastest will be together at a stadium in Oslo. The two contingents will face off in a virtual 2000m team event during the June 11 Impossible Games, the most significant track and field meet since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Organizers of the meet held in Oslo, typically part of the top-level Diamond League circuit, are billing the Norwegian team to include all three Ingebrigtsen brothers — Henrik (2012 European champion), Filip (2017 World bronze medalist), and Jakob (second-fastest in the world in 2019).

The Kenyan team is “Team Cheruiyot,” named after world champion Timothy Cheruiyot, though organizers did not confirm in a press release that Cheruiyot will be part of the squad that races. Later, World Athletics reported that the Kenyan team will include Cheruiyot, plus 2017 World champion Elijah Manangoi.

In the 2000m competition, each team will have five runners. The winner will be the team with the best overall time for three runners, which sounds similar to long-track speed skating’s team pursuit.

Again, the Kenyans will be racing in Nairobi. The Norwegians at the Bislett stadium. A broadcast stream will be a split screen.

“This will be the first virtual race at such level in the history of athletics,” according to a press release.

Also, Therese Johaug, the reigning World Cup overall cross-country skiing champion, will run a 10,000m on the track, organizers announced Tuesday.

Johaug, 31, is one of the world’s dominant athletes. Last season, she notched 20 World Cup victories, 17 more than any other woman. She did so after being banned from the PyeongChang Olympics after testing positive for a steroid found in a cream given to her by a team doctor to treat sunburned lips.

Johaug also has some distance-running credentials. Last year, she won the Norwegian national title in the 10,000m, clocking 32:20.86 to rank 88th in the world. The Olympic qualifying standard is 31:25.

Also slated for the June 11 meet with limited athletes and no fans in the stadium: world 400m hurdles champion Karsten Warholm of Norway, the top two ranked pole vaulters in history — Swede Mondo Duplantis and Frenchman Renaud Lavillenie — and world discus champion Daniel Stahl of Sweden.

Duplantis is expected to be at the Oslo stadium, while Lavillenie will pole vault remotely from his home in France. Warholm was announced last month to race the 300m hurdles, eyeing the fastest time in history in the non-Olympic event, in a solo race.

This year’s Diamond League season has been readjusted to start in August.

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