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

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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.

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Working on something new today!🎵🎶

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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.

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Adulting with Andrea

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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.

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Amy Cragg to withdraw from U.S. Olympic marathon trials

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Defending champion Amy Cragg will miss the Feb. 29 U.S. Olympic marathon trials with an illness, according to her social media.

“The Trials are the reason I have shown up every day for the last four years, so this has been an extremely difficult decision,” was posted on her social media. Cragg later said she had Epstein-Barr virus, according to multiple reports.

Cragg, 36, was among the favorites to grab three Olympic spots at trials in Atlanta, despite not having competed over 26.2 miles since the February 2018 Tokyo Marathon.

She withdrew from the 2018 Chicago Marathon with a hamstring injury and also scratched a month before the 2019 Chicago Marathon, citing signs pointing to needing more time after the previous year’s injury.

Cragg, fourth at the 2012 Olympic trials, relegated Des Linden and Shalane Flanagan to second and third at the 2016 trials. Linden and Flanagan went on to win the Boston and New York City Marathons, respectively, ending long U.S. women’s victory droughts.

Cragg went on to finish ninth in Rio and earn a 2017 World bronze medal, the first world championships marathon podium finish for an American woman since the first worlds in 1983.

Cragg could still make the Tokyo Olympic team in the 10,000m if she races at track trials in June. She won the 2012 Olympic trials 10,000m but hasn’t raced the distance on the track since May 2017.

“Right now my only goal is to get healthy so that I can train at the level needed to be competitive,” Cragg said in an emailed message from her agent. “That being said, the reason I am still in this sport is because of the Olympic Trials and Olympics. It is what excites me more than anything, so it is something I would still love to do.”

With Cragg absent and Flanagan retired, Linden is the only woman in next week’s field with Olympic marathon experience.

Other favorites include Olympic 10,000m runner Molly Huddle, world championships 10,000m runner Emily Sisson and Jordan Hasay, the second-fastest U.S. female marathoner in history.

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Galen Rupp, after tumult, finds familiarity before Olympic marathon trials

Galen Rupp
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As Galen Rupp bids for a fourth Olympics, and perhaps become the first man or woman to win the Olympic marathon trials twice outright, he found some rare familiarity these days on the roads Feb. 8.

“Feeling like my old self again,” Rupp said Wednesday of winning a low-key half marathon in Mesa, Ariz., his first completed race in 16 months and since parting from now-banned, career-long coach Alberto Salazar. “It’s obviously been a long year and a half.”

Rupp clocked 61 minutes, 19 seconds on a downhill course. It’s faster than any half marathon by an American recorded by World Athletics since the start of 2019. Granted the downhill, but Rupp also said he was instructed by new coach Mike Smith to make it a controlled effort.

“He didn’t want me to run all-out, didn’t want me to really push and put myself in a big hole,” Rupp said, noting he was still in heavy training. “You don’t want to break that [training] up and put yourself in a deficit by having a massive effort.”

Mesa answered questions about Rupp’s readiness for the Olympic trials in Atlanta on Feb. 29 (NBC, 12-3 p.m. ET). Even to the two-time Olympic medalist himself. Rupp said he started the half marathon with a little bit of doubt — given recent left ankle and calf injuries — but felt early on that everything would be fine.

“It really put my mind at ease,” he said. “I’m going to be good for the marathon.”

His last two marathons did not go well.

At the 2018 Chicago Marathon, Rupp dropped from the leaders around mile 19 and finished fifth in a title defense. An Achilles injury flared up near the end. He underwent surgery later that month for two tears. Doctors said the ankle had been “a ticking time bomb.”

“They said I was really lucky to have as good of health as I had and manage it as I did,” Rupp said.

He went a full year before racing again, at the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 13, 12 days after Salazar’s ban was announced. Even that was a rushed comeback, Rupp said after dropping out around mile 23 with a calf injury.

“I’m not going to say it was a wake-up call,” Rupp said, “but I think I was a little bit stubborn before Chicago.”

Rupp said he ran through pain in training to get to the start line four months ago. He had trouble walking for several days after the abbreviated race and focused on physical therapy for about two months. He resumed normal, pain-free training in December.

By early January, Runner’s World reported that Oregon-based Rupp found a new Flagstaff-based coach in Smith, who leads a Northern Arizona University program that won the last three NCAA men’s cross-country titles.

“The biggest thing to me was Mike’s philosophy in coaching was very similar to the program that I was under for so many years,” said Rupp, who was for more than a decade part of the Nike Oregon Project, which was shut down last fall after Salazar’s ban for doping violations (which he appealed). Rupp wasn’t implicated by USADA and has a clean drug-testing record. “What I love most about it was Mike’s honesty and how forthright he was about everything. You could tell he wasn’t just saying what I wanted to hear or say, ‘We’re just going to do whatever you’ve been doing and try and replicate that.’ You’ve got to keep evolving and trying new things.”

Smith declined an interview request through NAU until after trials. He agreed to coach Rupp after about a month of communication and hard questions, according to Runner’s World.

“Because of its timing and the headlines I was reading like everyone else at the time, this was not a road I wanted to go down,” Smith said, according to the report. “To be honest, it was just easiest to turn it down. I’m actually — as crazy as this sounds — really proud I did not.

“What I found out by getting to know Galen was that there was much more going on than the picture portrayed of him, and I wish the world knew that. I have never seen someone more all-in in my life.”

Rupp, asked his toughest moment of the last two years, said he moves forward.

“Throughout any hardships and setbacks, I felt a lot of gratitude that I had as good of a run as I did with my health and everything going well for as long as I did,” he said. “It can be easy to get angry and get down, like why me, but I do believe that things always work out. There’s a reason behind all this stuff.”

Which brings Rupp to Atlanta next week for the first time in his life, aside from airport layovers. The race is unlike any other he has contested. The course is unusually hilly. The format — Americans only, top three make the Olympic team — makes for different tactics than the World Marathon Majors that Rupp is used to.

In 2016, Rupp entered as a favorite but without any marathon experience. He won convincingly, pulling away from now-retired Meb Keflezighi by 68 seconds.

The field is deeper this year. Seven Americans broke 2:11 in 2019. Only one did in 2015. But Rupp, at his best, is in his own class.

His personal best 2:06:07, from his last healthy marathon in 2018, is 1:49 faster than the second-fastest in the trials field in this Olympic cycle (Leonard Korir). The next-fastest, Scott Fauble, is more than three minutes behind by personal bests.

“I can confidently go in and say that I’ve put in the work for this, just like I know that I put in the work in 2016,” Rupp said. “Of course, you want to go in and have good races, feeling confident and being on a roll like I was several years ago. But I think that’s why that race in Mesa was so important to show, more to myself, that hey, you’re ready to go. You can still run well. You haven’t lost everything. Surgery didn’t wipe you out.”

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