SAN JOSE, Calif. — Ashley Wagner wants no favors if she’s going to find her way to the Pyeongchang Olympics next month in South Korea.
Not an edge based on her experience or reputation, her familiar name or those recognizable skating programs performed to “La La Land.” Not like last time, when she received a waiver from U.S. Figure Skating to earn a place at the Sochi Olympics despite a poor performance at the U.S. championships: two falls and other mistakes in her strongest event, the free skate.
She didn’t dare question the judges’ marks Wednesday in her disappointing fifth-place short program, either. Not when so much is at stake for every skater.
When Wagner takes the ice for her free skate at SAP Center on Friday night, the three-time national champion will try to secure her spot as one of the three Americans headed to South Korea. And this very likely is the last hurrah for the 26-year-old Wagner chasing an elusive Olympic medal, which would be the Americans’ first since Sasha Cohen’s silver in 2006. Wagner placed sixth in Sochi after she contributed to a bronze medal in the new team event.
“It’ll be an interesting position because in years past I’ve been the clear front-runner internationally, and I just have had a really difficult season. And I am in no way, shape or form expecting to rely on my past experience,” Wagner said. “Of course that’s great and I would love for that to say something about whether or not I deserve to be on this team, but I’m not going to feel great getting put onto an Olympic team and not really skating my heart out.
“So for me going into this long program I’m not banking on anything other than what I put out on Friday.”
Wagner acknowledged making adjustments to her routine given the smaller rink at the San Jose Sharks’ SAP Center, which affected her timing on some components. If she does make one more Olympics, there will be some serious evaluation of her routines, and likely at least some significant changes.
“If I make it on through to the Olympic team we’re going to go back to the drawing board with the short program,” Wagner said. “Just because I love how I feel with ‘La La Land’ and a new, fresh program, so who knows? That program might have seen its last day here at nationals. It might go through the Olympics. There’s some stuff that just needs to go back to the drawing board because, for as fresh as ‘La La Land’ feels, it’s feeling just so old and I’m ready for something different. So we’ll see what happens.”
Her roommate and close friend Adam Rippon had one main word of encouragement: “rebound.” Rippon spoke about Wagner after finishing second in Thursday night’s men’s short program.
“I told her when she got back from the short program: ‘OK, it’s done, what are you going to do? Tell me right now, what are the steps that you’re going to take because this is the position you’re in, good, bad whatever? What are you going to do to move forward?’
“She’s got nothing to lose. She’s already a three-time national champion, she already has an Olympic medal, this is all just icing on the cake. She’s already also a world medalist. She just needs to go after it and not care.”
Wagner also is more than accustomed to coming from behind in the free skate.
“I am the kind of skater where my main focus going into the short program is to not get too far behind. I know my strengths, I know my weaknesses,” she said.
So much so that she can joke good-naturedly about flubbing a triple toe loop to lower her score.
“Because I love the feeling of not knowing if I’m going to make it to the Olympics or not, it’s so much fun,” she cracked. “It is a familiar position for me for sure and I really think that, yes, I seem to put myself in the position of being an underdog, but that’s because I’m a long-program skater.”
Wagner has the experience and the flair, and she’s just trying to rediscover her swagger. She is even allowing herself a little bit of reflection this week in the Bay Area.
“Going into these next couple days I’m definitely at the end of my career and who knows how many nationals I have left,” Wagner said. “This might be my last one, it might not be, but I think the really special thing about the point I’m at now in my career is that I have so much to look back on and enjoy. Whatever happens this event, I’m going to fight tooth and nail because I want to be on that Olympic team. But whatever happens here, I’ve had a career that I’ve been so blessed to experience and it’s a nice position to be in.”
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