Getty Images

Ashley Wagner on competitive future, role as coach, and upcoming shows

Leave a comment

When Ashley Wagner finished the 2018 season, she made a promise to herself that she would live a little bit more of life. She moved across the country, from Los Angeles to Boston, and while she’s still on the ice every day skating and participating in a slate of upcoming shows, she’s now added to her resume as a coach.

We caught up with the three-time national champion and World silver medalist. (Questions and answers lightly edited for clarity.)

How did you get involved in the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation show, Scott Hamilton & Friends

I have actually performed in Scott’s show a couple of times but it’s always during the Grand Prix season, so I haven’t been able to skate in it for the past few years because I needed to focus on my training. It was one of those things where I feel like he heard that I was taking the Grand Prix season off and he reached out to me and asked if I wanted to take part. It was such an easy yes. It’s a really great show. He does a fantastic job at putting together the golden era of figure skating shows. This is how figure skating shows are meant to be. You always know that you’re going to be skating in something that is quality.

The last time I spoke to Scott, he said that even though he says this every year, this show is gonna be the best ever.

I mean, yeah, ‘cause I’m skating in it! [laughing] No, it’s gonna be great. I’m really excited. He passed along my music to me and he sent me an email. He’s like, I heard this song and I thought it was just made for you right away. It’s nice to know that he goes through all of the music selections and really caters it to his show. I think that’s a detail that makes this show so much different than anything else. The music is selected for each athlete so you know that’s it’s a cohesive show. It should be great. We have a couple Olympic medalists. This is the best show you’re gonna see, no joke.

View this post on Instagram

Working on something new today!🎵🎶

A post shared by Ashley Wagner (@ashwagner2010) on

What’s different about skating to live music compared to a track?

Live music is a lot harder to skate to because you can have an artist up on the stage and maybe they’re feeling a note and you’re in a spiral. All of a sudden you’re like, okay you need to end this note! You’re singing it a lot longer than I’m used to! There are a lot more variables.

It’s like watching skating live versus watching it on TV. When you’re in the arena and the skater is in front of you, you can feel the emotion and the energy that they’re putting out in a performance. I think that skating to live music, you get that same kind of sense. You really get to experience all of the heart that a performer is putting into their music. And that combined with live skating I think it just makes for such a magical recipe. You just really get to experience skating, and experience the music.

How’s life in Boston?

I love it here! This was the best decision that I could’ve made. I’m so happy here. I promised myself after 2018 that I was going to give myself the opportunity to live a little bit of life. I’m still on the ice and skating every single day. But this city just has so much to offer and I feel like I’m really getting to experience a lot more than I was able to in LA. I’m so happy here.

Have you caught yourself adopting any of your coach Rafael Arutunian’s mannerisms when you’re coaching?

Raf is such a loud coach, and he gets away with it because he’s a big Russian man. But as soon as I raise my voice I look ridiculous. It’s been a balance, because it’s a different level of skating here than I’m used to. I’m used to professional, high-level skating and coming here it’s a bunch of kids who are on their way up. Which is really exciting, but it’s definitely been an adjustment for me just to kind of reel back a little bit and not turn into Rafael.

It’s a different phase in their careers.

Exactly. They’re not quite at the level where I can just scream at them to skate a long program. Because they’re 12 years old and I can’t scream at kids.

And they have parents.

And parents! I have to deal with parents. That’s the scariest part of figure skating. I haven’t had to deal with parents since I was 18. That’s been a big change for me.

You did some commentary work for NHK Trophy in Japan. How was that?

It was so much fun and also terrifying. The first event that I covered was the pairs’ short program, so it was definitely a sink or swim moment. I think pairs skating is like the moon. I don’t understand it. It’s so different from anything that I do in my skating life. It was terrifying. I spent the first warm up in a blackout. And then finally was like, ‘okay, I can do this!’ I’m really glad that I got to see what it’s like on the other side. It’s way harder than it sounds.

View this post on Instagram

Adulting with Andrea

A post shared by Ashley Wagner (@ashwagner2010) on

Did you have a lot of homework?

I did. It was tough because I didn’t really know what I was walking into. I was working with Andrea Joyce so it was like how communication was gonna go, what her role was going to be, what I was responsible for. Once I experienced that I knew how to prepare myself a lot more.

You already mentioned you’re taking the Grand Prix season off. Can you say anything else about your competitive future?

Right now, to be completely honest, I’m not entirely sure what I want to do. Watching the ladies’ event [at NHK Trophy] in Japan, it was one of those situations where definitely maybe take a step back and think, okay, in order to even be competitive on the scene right now, you need to be throwing out technically perfect programs with two triple-triples, and if you’re not even thinking about a triple Axel, then maybe you should step aside.

It’s one of those things where sometimes it’s best to just take a step back and let skating progress the way it’s going to. I watched Carolina Kostner and what she was able to do toward the later part of her career and I really admire that. I think that there’s something to be said about coming out and putting out quality and still being able to perform that doesn’t entirely write off someone who’s not trying the technically most difficult program. But it’s a lot of work. It’s one of those things where I have to start considering whether or not it’s worth it.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Karen Chen out of Grand Prix Series

Ragan Smith finds joy in college gymnastics after life-changing decision

AP
Leave a comment

Ragan Smith, after her first two weeks of college gymnastics, quickly pointed out the coolest part of competing for the Oklahoma Sooners. It’s the noise that erupts on the last pass of her floor exercise, or upon her dismount off the uneven bars or balance beam.

They are similar sounds to what drew her to commit to Oklahoma back in 2015, when she was 15 years old.

“The girls in practice were all cheering for each other,” she recalled in a phone interview earlier this month.

Last spring, Smith called Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler with a request. The Texan wanted to enroll at OU that summer, a year earlier than planned. Originally, Smith committed to the university with the intention of deferring until after the 2020 Olympic season.

Smith, a Rio Olympic alternate in her first year at the senior elite level, began this Olympic cycle in 2017 by winning the U.S. all-around title. Granted, the triumph came during Simone Biles‘ one-year break. But consider that Smith’s margin of victory — 3.4 points — was greater than Biles’ average margin for her four national titles from 2013-16.

Everything changed for Smith on Oct. 6, 2017. Minutes before she was to compete as the favorite in the world championships all-around, she suffered an ankle injury warming up on vault (reportedly three torn ligaments). She was withdrawn from the meet and fought injuries for the rest of her elite career.

In calling Kindler last spring, Smith signaled she was ready to move on from Olympic-level or “elite” gymnastics. It is possible for collegians to compete at U.S. Championships or Olympic trials, but no woman with NCAA experience has made any of the last three Olympic teams.

“I felt like my time was done in elite,” said Smith, whose mother and aunt competed for Auburn and Maryland, respectively. “I really just wanted to move on with my life and everything.”

Kindler was walking in an academic center on campus when Smith called her last spring.

“[Smith] said, ‘I was in the shower, and I was thinking, and I think I really, really want to come,'” Kindler said. “‘My body is ready to be done with elite gymnastics, and my mind is ready to move forward, and I would love to come to school this year. Is there a spot for me?’

“We saved a spot in case she changed her mind [about waiting until after the Olympics], but the plan was always for her to defer. We never talked about anything else, so I was very surprised by the phone call.”

Kindler urged Smith to think it over. Discuss it with her elite coach, 1991 World all-around champion Kim Zmeskal.

“[Zmeskal] and I had a really good understanding of what Ragan’s goals were, which is why I think it had to be Ragan’s decision,” Kindler said. “I didn’t want to place any influence on anything. Kim thinks the world of Ragan. She was in full support. Her and I texted back and forth and spoke about it. She said she wanted Ragan to think about it a little bit, and she did do that, and still had decided that this was for her. I think Kim supported that decision, just as I said I would support whatever she wanted to do.”

Smith shared the news on July 7.

“I have moved on from the 1st chapter of my life and on to the 2nd,” was posted on her Instagram, accompanied by a photo of her in a crimson leotard. “I am so excited to be joining the class of 2019.”

Smith joined the defending national champion program, one that captured three of the last four NCAA titles. By enrolling a year early, Smith gets to be teammates with senior Maggie Nichols.

Nichols was second to Biles at the 2015 U.S. Championships, making her a bona fide contender for the Rio Olympic team. Early in 2016, Nichols tore a meniscus on a vault landing and underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. She announced retirement from elite gymnastics two days after finishing sixth at the Olympic trials, one spot behind Smith, and not being named to the Olympic team.

Last season, Nichols became the first woman to repeat as NCAA all-around champion in 12 years.

Smith said she has already benefited from Nichols’ experience, coming to her with questions to aid her transition.

“What an incredible opportunity to have Ragan and Maggie on the same team,” Kindler said.

The Sooners are 9-0 this year and 26-0 since the start of 2019. Smith was named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week each of the season’s first three weeks. Not incredibly surprising, given Smith’s pedigree.

Perhaps more notable: Kindler said Smith hasn’t had a single ankle problem since arriving in Norman in July.

Back in August 2018, Smith said the ankle still hurt sometimes, that she had not completed a practice without pain that whole year and a coach joked to her, “You already have a 100-year-old body.”

Smith is competing easier routines collegiately than as an elite, as is the norm. But Kindler found that her passion for the sport has not waned.

“As an elite athlete, you don’t necessarily have to learn anything when you come to college,” Kindler said. “In fact, you can scale back what you’re doing, but I feel like she has a real eagerness to continue to refine what she’s doing and to learn new skills. She wants to continue to get better, and I love that about her.”

At her first college meet, Smith remembered the feeling of adrenaline brought on by competing not just for herself, but for women with whom she will call teammates week in and week out for the coming years.

“I didn’t want to let go of elite because it’s been, like, my whole life and my dream and everything,” said Smith, who was inspired by McKayla Maroney‘s 2012 Olympic vault and then had a dog named Rio. “But at the same time, my mind was telling me to come to college and have fun. I’m glad I made that decision, because I love it here.”

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Athletes warily embrace progress as USA Gymnastics evolves

Dustin Johnson wonders if Olympic golf will properly fit into his schedule

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Dustin Johnson, the world’s fifth-ranked golfer, said he isn’t sure the Tokyo Olympics will fit well into his schedule, assuming he qualifies for what will be a very competitive U.S. team of four.

“Obviously representing the United States in the Olympics is something that, you know, definitely be proud to do,” he said when asked if the Ryder Cup and the Olympics are goals this year. “But is it going to fit in the schedule properly? I’m not really sure about that, because there’s so many events that are right there and leading up to it. So you know, I’m still working with my team to figure out what’s the best thing for me to do.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open winner and world No. 1 in 2017 and 2018, is the third-highest ranked American at the moment behind Brooks Koepka (who also spoke about the Olympics on Tuesday, saying they’re not as important as majors) and Justin Thomas.

Johnson is ranked one spot ahead of Tiger Woods, who has voiced intent to play in Tokyo should he qualify.

But the current world rankings, based on a two-year, rolling window of results, do not exactly mirror Olympic qualifying, which takes into account only results after the 2018 U.S. Open. Rankings guru @VC606 on Twitter has Thomas, Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay as the current U.S. top four in Olympic qualifying. Woods is fifth and Johnson seventh.

The cutoff to determine the Olympic field of 60 golfers overall is after the U.S. Open in June.

The Olympic golf tournament is July 30-Aug. 2. There is no PGA Tour event that weekend. The FedEx Cup Playoffs start two weeks after the Olympics. Last season, Johnson did not play the tournaments that will immediately precede and follow the Olympics — the 3M Open and the Wyndham Championship.

Johnson did qualify for the Rio Olympics but withdrew a month before the Games, citing Zika virus concerns as other golfers did.

“This was not an easy decision for me, but my concerns about the Zika virus cannot be ignored,” Johnson said in a statement at the time. “[Wife] Paulina and I plan to have more children in the near future, and I feel it would be irresponsible to put myself, her or our family at risk.”

Paulina gave birth to their second son in June 2017.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Nosferatu is golf’s Olympic rankings guru. Who is he?