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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FBI mishandled Larry Nassar-USA Gymnastics abuse case, watchdog says

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WASHINGTON — The FBI made “fundamental” errors in investigating sexual abuse allegations against former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar and did not treat the case with the “utmost seriousness,” the Justice Department’s inspector general said Wednesday. More athletes said they were molested before the the FBI swung into action.

The FBI acknowledged conduct that was “inexcusable and a discredit” to America’s premier law enforcement agency and all.

The long-awaited watchdog report raises troubling questions about how the department and the FBI handled the case and it highlights major missteps at the FBI between the time the allegations were first reported and Nassar’s arrest.

The inspector general’s investigation was spurred by allegations that the FBI failed to promptly address complaints made in 2015 against Nassar. USA Gymnastics had conducted its own internal investigation and then the organization’s then-president, Steve Penny, reported the allegations to the FBI’s field office in Indianapolis. But it took months before the bureau opened a formal investigation.

At least 40 girls and women said they were molested over a 14-month period while the FBI was aware of other sexual abuse allegations involving Nassar. Officials at USA Gymnastics also contacted FBI officials in Los Angeles in May 2016 after eight months of inactivity from agents in Indianapolis.

The inspector general’s office found that “despite the extraordinarily serious nature” of the allegations against Nassar, FBI officials in Indianapolis did not respond with the “utmost seriousness and urgency that they deserved and required.”

When they did respond, the report said, FBI officials made “numerous and fundamental errors” and also violated bureau policies. Among the missteps was a failure to conduct any investigative activity until more than a month after a meeting with USA Gymnastics. Agents interviewed by phone one of three athletes, but never spoke with two other gymnasts despite being told they were available to meet.

The watchdog investigation also found that when the FBI’s Indianapolis field office’s handling of the matter came under scrutiny, officials there did not take any responsibility for the missteps and gave incomplete and inaccurate information to internal FBI inquiries.

The FBI rebuked its own employees who failed to act in the case and said it “should not have happened.”

“The actions and inactions of certain FBI employees described in the Report are inexcusable and a discredit to this organization,” the agency said in a statement.

“The FBI has taken affirmative steps to ensure and has confirmed that those responsible for the misconduct and breach of trust no longer work FBI matters,” the statement said. “We will take all necessary steps to ensure that the failures of the employees outlined in the Report do not happen again.”

The inspector general interviewed an FBI supervisory special agent last September who said the original allegations reported by Penny and USA Gymnastics were “very vague” and who questioned Penny’s credibility, describing him as “kind of a snake oil salesman kind of guy.”

That special agent also told investigators that the Indianapolis field office didn’t appear to have jurisdiction to investigate because the alleged crimes did not take place in Indiana. That agent and an FBI supervisor in the office said they told Penny to contact local law enforcement — a claim contradicted by Penny and the chairman of the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors.

The FBI said the supervisory special agent “violated multiple policies” and that the agency took immediate action when it learned that the agent did not properly document the sexual abuse complaints, had mishandled evidence and failed to report abuse.

The report also detailed that while the FBI was investigating the Nassar allegations, the head of the FBI’s field office in Indianapolis, W. Jay Abbott, was talking to Penny about getting a job with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. He applied for the job but didn’t get it and later retired from the FBI, the report said.

Abbott also lied to investigators from the inspector general’s office multiple times in an effort “to minimize errors” made by his office in handling the case, the report found.

Nassar was ultimately charged in 2016 with federal child pornography offenses and sexual abuse charges in Michigan.

He is now serving decades in prison after hundreds of girls and women said he sexually abused them under the guise of medical treatment when he worked for Michigan State and Indiana-based USA Gymnastics, which trains Olympians.

The inspector general’s office said it reviewed thousands of documents and interviewed more than 60 witnesses, including several victims, their parents, prosecutors and current and former FBI employees.

The FBI’s handling of the case was strongly condemned by members of Congress, and some senators called for the inspector general, Michael Horowitz, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General Merrick Garland to testify about the case.

“We are appalled by the FBI’s gross mishandling of the specific warnings its agents received about Larry Nassar’s horrific abuse years before he was finally arrested,” said Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan.

Nassar’s victims also strongly criticized the FBI for its poor handling of the investigation.

“The dozens of little girls abused after the FBI knew who Larry was and exactly what he was doing, could have and should have been saved,” tweeted Rachel Denhollander, one of the first women to publicly accuse Nassar of abuse.

John Manly, an attorney for over 150 of Nassar’s victims, said Abbott should be prosecuted and insisted that anyone responsible for missteps in the investigation should be held accountable.

“The OIG report released shocks the conscience,” Manly said. “These women and girls not only deserved to have their case thoroughly investigated but deserved the respect and full attention of those investigating their case.”

USA Gymnastics is still reeling from the fallout of the Nassar scandal six years after Penny first approached authorities. The sport’s national governing body has undergone a massive overhaul in leadership — current president Li Li Leung is the fourth person to hold the position since the 2016 Olympics — and safety protocols in hopes of providing better protection for athletes.

USA Gymnastics also remains in court as it continues mediation with dozens of Nassar survivors, though Leung hopes settlement can be reached by the end of the year.

“At the end of the day, what has happened is something that we are learning from and we’re using the past to inform how we go forward,” Leung told reporters last month.

The report came on the same day the 2021 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, a group that includes reigning world and Olympic champion and Nassar abuse survivor Simone Biles, flew to Tokyo for the Games.

At the French Open, an unlikely women’s final is set

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PARIS (AP) — The ball landing at Barbora Krejcikova’s feet on match point appeared to come down behind the baseline.

The linesman thought so and called the shot long. A TV replay confirmed as much, and the unseeded Krejcikova was so sure she raised her arms in triumph to celebrate a berth in her first Grand Slam final at the French Open.

Chair umpire Pierre Bacchi disagreed. He reversed the call, sparking a fresh round of debate about video replay and briefly delaying Krejcikova’s victory.

Tennis was spared an unjust result five points later, when she hit a backhand winner to close out the biggest victory of her career. The Czech saved a match point midway through the final set and outlasted No. 17-seeded Maria Sakkari of Greece, 7-5, 4-6, 9-7.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

“I always wanted to play matches like this,” Krejcikova said.

She must like roller coasters, too. Her opponent Saturday will be 29-year-old Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who also advanced to her first major final by beating unseeded Tamara Zidansek, 7-5, 6-3.

It was only the second time in the professional era that there were four first-time Grand Slam women semifinalists at a major tournament, and the first time since the 1978 Australian Open.

The men’s semifinals Friday include a showdown between 13-time champion Rafael Nadal and 2016 winner Novak Djokovic. It’s their 58th meeting, and a rematch of last year’s Roland Garros final. The other semifinal will match No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas against No. 6 Alexander Zverev, and one of them will have a shot Sunday at his first Grand Slam title.

Krejcikova, a two-time major doubles champion ranked 33rd, is playing singles in the main draw of a major tournament for just the fifth time. The No. 31-seeded Pavlyuchenkova, by contrast, has played in more majors before reaching a final — 52 — than any other woman.

A top-20 player as a teen, Pavlyuchenkova had been 0-6 in major quarterfinals before finally surmounting that hurdle on Tuesday, and was steadier than the big-swinging Zidansek in their semifinal.

“I wanted this so much that right now I don’t feel anything,” Pavlyuchenkova told the crowd in French.

Krejcikova’s run to the final is equally improbable.

“It sounds incredible,” she said. “I cannot believe it. It’s actually happening.”

It seemed especially unlikely nine games into the third set, when Sakkari held a match point. She confessed she then became less aggressive.

“I got stressed, starting thinking that I’m a point away from being in the final,” she said. “I guess it’s a rookie mistake.”

Krejcikova erased the match point with a swinging volley for a nervy winner, and 40 minutes later they were still playing.

Then came the real drama. With Krejcikova holding a match point in the final game, Sakkari hit a forehand near the baseline. Bacchi climbed off his chair, took a look, called the shot good and ordered the point replayed.

“He came and he’s like, ‘It’s in,’ and I’m like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no. Why?’” she said with a chuckle. “But what can I do? I cannot change his decision. It’s fine; let’s go. Let’s try to just win the next one.”

A TV replay indicated the ball was clearly long, but video review isn’t used at Roland Garros, where the balls usually leave clear marks in the clay.

Krejcikova kept her cool and was celebrating for good moments later after converting her fifth match point.

There wasn’t as much drama in the day’s first match, but the quality of play was as enjoyable as the warm, cloudless weather. The 85th-ranked Zidansek, who this week became the first Slovenian woman to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal, was the better player for much of the first set, moving well and hitting the more aggressive groundstrokes.

But Pavlyuchenkova won the most important points, and Zidansek dumped consecutive shaky serves into the net to lose the set.

Pavlyuchenkova’s groundstrokes carried more sting in the second set as she raced to a 4-1 lead. Her first sign of nerves came as she double-faulted twice, including on break point, to make it 4-3, but she broke back and easily served out the victory.

“Tennis is such a mental sport,” she said. “That’s what is really hard about tennis.”

Zidansek could only agree.

“A new situation for me, semifinals of a Grand Slam,” she said. “So, yeah, I was nervous. But who isn’t at this point? I was just trying to compose my nerves as well as I could.”

Pavlyuchenkova, who has won 12 tour titles, will climb back into the Top 20 next week for first time since January 2018.

“She’s in the final,” Krejcikova said. “She must be playing well.”

The same could be said for Krejcikova, who has won 11 consecutive matches, including her first WTA singles title last month at Strasbourg. She is the eighth unseeded women’s finalist at the French Open in the professional era, and the fourth in the past five years.

A protege of the late Grand Slam champion Jana Novotna, Krejcikova seeks to become the first Czech woman to win Roland Garros since Hana Mandlikova in 1981.

She’s also bidding to become the first woman to win both in doubles and singles at Roland Garros since Mary Pierce in 2000. She and Katerina Siniakova have advanced to the semifinals Friday.

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