After a highly decorated career, Ashley Wagner is proudest of current chapter in her story

courtesy of Ashley Wagner
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At this time four years ago, Ashley Wagner was beginning the final months of training for what she reasonably could have expected would lead to her second Olympic appearance after having won an Olympic team event bronze medal in 2014.

Sure, her 2016-17 season had been a struggle, with a subpar seventh-place performance at the World Championships. But that was still her sixth straight worlds, and, among U.S. women, only Michelle Kwan has a longer consecutive appearance streak.

Beyond that, Wagner had skated to a silver medal at the 2016 Worlds, to this day the only medal by a U.S. woman at worlds since 2006. And Wagner had been just five points from a medal at the 2015 Worlds, when she was third in the free skate.

In October 2017, no one could have foreseen Bradie Tennell going from relative unknown to 2018 U.S. champion or Mirai Nagasu putting it together for a stunning performance when it counted most, at the 2018 U.S. Championships. Wagner, a three-time U.S. champion, and Karen Chen, the 2017 champion, were, at that point, seemingly the best bets to claim spots on the team going to South Korea, with the third and final spot up for grabs.

Four months later, after a workmanlike, unremarkable performance at nationals, Wagner would be the odd woman out. She was furious about the scores that kept her from the 2018 team and unafraid to say that, her outsized reaction provoked by disappointment that blurred her perspective on what the judges had seen.

(It wasn’t the first such public reaction from the feisty, disarmingly honest Wagner. Her disapproving expression for her scores in the 2014 Olympic team event was right out of the McKayla Maroney meme playbook.)

Wagner would nevertheless make it to the 2018 Olympics, as a schmoozer for Toyota, paid to accompany the sponsor’s executives and guests at an event in which she wanted to be competing. She thought going would be better than sitting at home, that she was making lemonade out of lemons, but by the end she was frequently calling her agent to see if she could cut the trip short.

When she came back from South Korea, Wagner was emotionally at sea, and then a car killed her cat.

She knew the story of her highly successful career in competitive figure skating, a career in which she was the only other woman but Kwan to win three U.S. titles since compulsory figures were eliminated after 1990, was likely to include a final chapter about falling short.

It turned out to be just the impetus she needed to move forward, no matter what was immediately behind her.

Four years later, looking at where she has already gone after relocating from California to Massachusetts, that perspective is clear to her.

“I’m on the chapter I’m most proud of now,” Wagner said in a recent interview with NBCSports.com.

* * *

The story about Ashley Wagner now is no longer that of a woman in competitive figure skating, as it had been for two-thirds of her life. She has become something of an experiential polymath.

She is 30, a junior at Northeastern University, studying psychology with the goal of having a therapy practice focusing on trauma-related issues and working with the LGBTQ+ community. She uses Instagram to be an advocate for body positivity. She found the strength to go public in August 2019 about her experience of being sexually abused, for which Wagner still seeks therapy today. She plans to revive a podcast she put on hiatus, “Confidence Call,” which dealt with some of those topics.

Ashley Wagner, springer spaniel Ziggy and boyfriend Alex Clark at her house in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester

In 2020, she bought a three-bedroom house in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, where she lives with a new cat, a springer spaniel, and her boyfriend of two years, Alex Clark, a sixth-grade science teacher. After years of living a block from a southern California beach she said she never went to, Wagner and Clark frequently hit the water on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, where he was born and raised.

She has skated in shows (before the pandemic hit) and done some commentary for NBC. She has created a frequently sold-out weekly power skating class, Skate and Sculpt, for “retired” skaters with basic skills at the Dorchester rink, and Wagner plans to take it to other cities this winter. She helps coach young, non-elite skaters at a rink in suburban Wellesley, preferring a secondary, backup role.

“I go in, support some skaters, sprinkle some chaos and then don’t have to deal with it,” Wagner said, laughing. “I feel like I am a part-time therapist, part-time technical coach. It’s a nice sweet spot to stay involved in the sport but not too involved. And as a psychology student, coaching has taught me how to navigate how different people learn in different ways.”

Much of her life is an open digital book on Instagram, where she mixes daily personal highs and lows with advice for those who, like her, have had issues being comfortable with the dimensions of their bodies. She knows social media can exacerbate such problems but also knows social media is an efficient way to reach people who have them. She understands how skating fed her insecurities and has come to terms with her complicated relationship with a sport from which she retired as a competitor three years ago.

“I was not the best skater,” she said. “To get as far as I did, I always had to look at what I was doing wrong and overcome the feeling that I was never going to be good enough. It was that negative mindset that got me success.

“I never loved skating. I saw it as an opportunity, a means to an end. When I was done, I was really done.”

The end for a woman with an independent streak who moved across the country on her own to work with a new coach when she turned 18 was to have food on a table and a roof over the head.

“I have always had a very survivalist relationship with the sport,” she said. “Skating and I had a deal: I will train, and you will give me a lot back. But that made pressure on me from skating a lot. The only reason I didn’t succumb to it was I never stopped to think about it.”

In a sport where strength-to-weight ratios are often critical, especially with the jump revolutions in both men’s and women’s singles, the pressure to be light is very great. Her frequent posts about body positivity have drawn replies from mothers whose young skating daughters are worried about weight.

“This problem is so big, and it is hard to change at the top,” Wagner said. “You want to get down to the grass roots. A 5-year-old girl has no idea what weight has to do with the sport. Then she’s 10 or 12 and getting fat talks from a coach.”

Wagner said she has raised these issues and others she has experienced to U.S. Figure Skating. That included telling the federation about her own sexual assault before revealing it publicly, in the hope that it would prompt change so something positive could come out of her trauma.

She sometimes came away with a feeling no one really was listening. At other times, she has been frustrated by answers about change taking place slowly.

“Ashley’s perspective assisted us in the review of our team leader selection and education,” USFS said in a statement. “She also worked with our SkateSafe team, sharing her story and taking questions at U.S. Figure Skating athlete safety seminars, making a strong impact on the young athletes and their parents.

“We continue to admire Ashley’s courage to publicly share her experience as she has helped others find the strength to speak up about abuse or misconduct.”

During the early months of the pandemic, when rinks were closed and she went months without skating for the first time in 20-odd years, Wagner fully realized how much negativity she felt about her own body image.

Ashley Wagner (pink cap, center) at one of her Skate and Sculpt classes at a rink in the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown

“I needed space from skating to understand how much I would panic if I wasn’t skating,” she said. “It wasn’t because I missed the ice but because I was worried about gaining weight.

“I’ve always been one of the bigger girls in the sport, but I am the size of a fit, normal person in the real world. In skating, I developed a warped understanding of my body being too big.”

It is a warped understanding many teenage girls develop, whether they are skaters or gymnasts or soccer players or not athletes at all. That is why Wagner feels it is important to post photos of her post-competition body.

“At first, it was a way for me to hold myself accountable, to publicly show myself my weight was okay no matter what size I was,” Wagner said. “When I fully understood how much skating made me worry about my weight, I had this thought that someone else out there has to be feeling this way and maybe if I post this and write about it, I will make one person feel a little less alone.

“My goal was to help one person. If I can help more, that’s amazing.”

That Wagner addresses subjects others in the sport treat like a third rail hardly is surprising, given her history of not biting her tongue. She was the only U.S. figure skater at the Team USA Media Summit in autumn 2013 to speak out about Russia’s anti-gay legislation prior to the 2014 Olympics, and she refused to shy away from it once in Sochi, noting ironically the rainbow of colors in the practice rink.

“My morals don’t line up with saying nothing in that case,” Wagner said. “There is an old-school mentality in figure skating (because it is a judged sport) of not causing a stir, of being easy to work with. I definitely straddled the line a little bit.”

In a year when many athletes have revealed their mental health issues, Wagner wants to contribute to that conversation.

“I was really struggling towards the end of my career and genuinely needed a lot more support than I knew how to ask for,” Wagner said. “My goal is to be able to change that narrative and help people learn to be ok.”

Before she spoke about her own body image issues over the past few years, Wagner realized she also needed to “take ownership of my story of sexual assault.” She did it with a first-person account in USA Today.

Wagner wrote that when she was 17, she had been assaulted during a figure skating camp in Colorado Springs by John Coughlin, then 22, who would go on to be a two-time U.S. pairs champion. Coughlin died by suicide in January 2019, a day after the U.S. Center for SafeSport gave him an interim suspension on the basis of having received three reports of sexual assault against him.

Going public with the experience did not end its impact upon Wagner. It frequently comes into her mind, especially when there are stories – or, most recently, Congressional testimony – about the Larry Nassar assaults on hundreds of gymnasts.

“The last few weeks have been really difficult for me,” she said. “The fact these women are coming forward and speaking up for themselves, really holding these people accountable is incredible. It’s also a little bit traumatizing, but it’s for the greater good.”

* * *

So this is Ashley Wagner in October 2021. She goes rock climbing, something she never would have done while competing, for fear of injury. She goes hiking, something she never would have done while skating for fear of fatigue. She goes to school remotely, in a program designed for people with busy lives.

With the help of her brother, Austin, an interior designer, and her boyfriend, whose family owns a construction company, she has redone four rooms of the house with the results posted (of course) on Instagram. She has a number of Instagram paid partnerships, mostly for health and skin care products.

It is once again about four months before the Olympics. Other than the 2019 arrival of Alysa Liu, there has been little turnover among the leading women in U.S. skating. The women with whom Wagner’s scores were competitive three years ago, like Tennell and Chen, still are near the top, with essentially the same technical content they had in 2018.

Her total score at the 2016 Worlds was the highest ever by a U.S. woman until the scoring changed substantially after the 2017-18 season. It would not be a stretch to imagine Wagner as a contender for the 2022 U.S. Olympic team had she decided to continue a career in which her first senior worlds appearance was 2008.

“That passed through my mind a few times as I was learning to let go,” Wagner said. “By the end of my career, I saw a lot of U.S. ladies come and go, and I was the one still there. The weight of being reliable for U.S. figure skating was exhausting. I very quickly realized I did not have another four years in me, and I wasn’t going to get a triple axel or a quad.”

When she won her final U.S. title in 2015, with the best free skate of her career, Wagner was 23, already older than any other women’s national champion since World War II but Kwan. Four years later, the 13-year-old Liu would become the youngest national singles champion in history.

Known as an athlete in her teens, she was appreciated as a crowd-pleasing entertainer in her 20s. But artistry without big jumps and jump combinations is no longer enough to get her where she was from 2012 through 2016, when she won the world silver (and finished fourth once and fifth twice), a gold at Four Continents and two silvers and a bronze at the Grand Prix Final. No U.S. woman has made a Grand Prix Final podium since.

“While I think I could still have been competitive with the U.S. ladies, I would never have been competitive against this crop of Japanese and Russian women,” Wagner said. “I am so happy my career was in the slice of skating history that it was because what it means to be competitive in this sport is so astronomically different than what it was for me.”

Over an hour-long FaceTime interview with a person whom I covered as a competitor for 11 years beginning in 2007, it was easy to see just how much Wagner’s new and different life has positively impacted her wellbeing.

“I genuinely am happy,” she said. “A lot of people who have known me throughout my career have never experienced me happy.

“It’s not skating’s fault that I was never really happy. But it’s nice to be at this point where I have as much access to skating as I choose. Now I get to skate because I want to, not because I have to. I’m working towards a future that probably has nothing to do with skating, and that is exciting for me.”

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

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