Sochi Olympics: U.S. skater rewrites program at 11th hour

Early last summer, when seemingly everything had been falling apart for Ashley Wagner, the 22-year-old figure skater secluded herself in the mountains of Lake Arrowhead, Calif., and forged ahead with her training.

She had endured a bitter fallout with her choreographer, Phillip Mills, who publicly criticized her for not adhering to his vision for her direction. Not long afterward, her coach, John Nicks, informed her that his age and health would leave him unable to travel to competition and he was, in effect, retiring. Then, her parents, Eric and Melissa Wagner, finalized their divorce after more than two decades of marriage.

Few sports value the stability of routine as much as figure skating, where competitions are won based on the precision of a finely constructed program. Even the slightest of deviations could wreck all of it.

Wagner took it in and moved on.

“I had a plan,” Wagner said. “I had a passion. I just needed to stick to what the plan is … and kind of push through it all.”

FILE - In this Dec. 5, 2013, file phot, Ashley Wagner, of the United States, performs during the ladies' short program at Grand Prix Final figure skating competition at Marine Messe Fukuoka in Fukuoka, western Japan. Wagner is, by far, the best American bet for an individual medal in Sochi. By finishing fifth at the worlds last year and Gracie Gold getting sixth, they secured the maximum three spots for the Olympics. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi, File)

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FILE - In this Dec. 5, 2013, file phot, Ashley Wagner, of ... more >

That plan was to qualify for the Sochi Olympics, where Wagner will represent the United States. Even that was wrought with challenges: Wagner made the cut despite falling twice and finishing fourth in the U.S. championships early last month.

The morning after that reprieve, Wagner decided to scrap the problematic free skate program and return to the arrangement from a year earlier. Months of fine-tuning would need to be condensed into a little more than three weeks.

“It is insane,” she said. “Absolutely insane. But I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world who is more prepared for a big change like this so close to the Olympics than I am.”

No stranger to instability

Such instability, Wagner would argue, is nothing new.

The daughter of an Army officer and a schoolteacher, Wagner didn’t settle into a permanent home until she was 11. Eric Wagner was stationed at the Pentagon, and Wagner and her brother, Austin, grew up in Alexandria, where she lived until moving to California in the summer of 2011.

Figure skating had always been her passion, yet the sport refused to love her back at times. In 2010, with her dreams set on qualifying for the Vancouver Olympics, Wagner fell during the short program of the U.S. championships, leaving her 4.08 points shy of second place. The difference would be minimal in any other year, but an adjustment in qualification standards gave the United States only two entries, not three.

The fall haunted Wagner. She lost confidence in her ability, and a pinched nerve in her neck contributed to a lackluster 2010-11 season. If anything, another change was necessary. She headed to California to work with Nicks, once the coach of Peggy Fleming, Kristi Yamaguchi and Sasha Cohen.

Nicks, then 82, began to repair Wagner’s technical execution and her artistic approach. With his guidance, she skated to first place in the 2012 national championships. When she defended her crown a year later, her once-shattered Olympic dreams were resurrected.

Then, more challenges. Feeling abandoned when Nicks had to scale back his schedule, Wagner turned to Adam Rippon, a longtime friend and fellow skater who was the runner-up in the U.S. championships in 2012. Rippon helped Wagner connect with his coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, and the three worked extensively over the summer.

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