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

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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.”

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.

“You didn’t have to think about other things or people coming to ask you, ‘Oh, what are you going to do now that this and this [happened]?’” Rippon said. “I think it was very therapeutic for her just to go and train and be able to put your head down and just get dirty and get all that hard training done.”

You have to keep pushing

The tears streaming down her cheeks told the story. If a fall at the 2010 national championships cost Wagner a shot to join the Olympic team, she was certain the two falls during her free skate would prevent her from competing in Sochi.

The morning after the competition brought unexpected news. Based on the strength of her international performances, the national committee decided that Wagner would join national champion Gracie Gold and runner-up Polina Edmunds on the Olympic team.

It was a relief, but changes would have to be made. Uncomfortable with the program set to Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” and willing to purge the memories of her two falls, she and Arutyunyan worked to bring back much of her gold-medal 2013 national championship program, set to “Bacchanale” from Camille Saint-Saens’ opera “Samson and Delilah.”

“If she can put all those doubts behind her and just do what she’s done in practice and do what she’s trained to do in the competition, I think she can do very well,” Rippon said. “I think she can have no problem whatsoever where she should not come back a two-time Olympic medalist, both with the team event and also [the individual competition].”

South Korea’s Kim Yu-na and Japan’s Mao Asada, the gold and silver medalists in Vancouver, figure among the medal contenders. So does Julia Lipnitskaia, the 15-year-old defending European champion who will be competing in her home country.

After all the changes Wagner has made to achieve her dream, she doesn’t want to let it overwhelm her. In recent weeks, she reached out to former gold medalists Scott Hamilton and Brian Boitano for advice, and each told her not to get caught up in the experience.

The most poignant wisdom, though, came from her parents, who have constantly reminded her, in action and in spirit, that life is not easy.

“You’re going to have a bad day,” Wagner said. “You’re going to just have to keep your chin up, keep pushing and believe that everything happens for a reason.”

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