By Lois Elfman
In figure skating, the United States has always seen the ladies event as their turf. U.S. ladies have won more Olympic gold medals than skaters from any other country. Names like Fleming, Hamill, Lipinski and Hughes are known to people with only the most casual of interest in the sport.
Over the past few years, the U.S. has lost its grip on that supremacy. No U.S. woman has won a medal at the World Figure Skating Championships since Baltimore native Kimmie Meissner’s gold in 2006. In fact, the U.S. hasn’t even earned three berths to the World Championships since 2008.
Two-time U.S. Ladies Champion Ashley Wagner is well aware of the challenge that awaits her when the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships kick off on March 11 in London, Ontario, Canada. Expectations are on her and teammate Gracie Gold to earn the U.S. three spots for next year’s Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
“I was personally affected, I think, the most directly from two spots going into the last Olympics,” said Wagner, 21, who finished third at the 2010 U.S. Championships. “I think the U.S. is sending a very capable team. Gracie and I, as long as we skate solid performances we’ll be able to accomplish that. I definitely am aware there’s a lot at stake at this competition.”
After winning her first Grand Prix competitions last autumn, a hard fall at the Grand Prix Final not only put Wagner second, but left her with a sore hip that temporarily hampered her training heading into the U.S. Championships. A bout of food poisoning weakened her and Wagner faltered in the free skate, which was won by Gold. Wagner was able to retain her title—the first U.S. lady to successfully defend since Michelle Kwan in 2005—due a huge lead over Gold from the short program.
“I feel great right now,” said Wagner, an Army brat who moved seven times during her childhood until her family settled in Northern Virginia in the late 90s. Although she’s been training in Southern California since June 2011 and her parents now live in Maryland, Wagner still lists Alexandria as her hometown and considers herself a NoVa girl.
“I’m feeling pretty good about my training,” Wagner said. “Pretty much the same thing every day—working on the triple/triples and doing my run-throughs and just making sure that everything feels solid and I can mentally prepare myself for Worlds.”
Award winning choreographer and TV commentator Sandra Bezic said Wagner’s lack of triple/triple combinations have been a handicap when she competes against the top skaters in the world. At press time, Wagner was anticipating performing a triple/triple in her short program, but said coach John Nicks will make the final decision at the championships.
“The ladies field, the level of competition is insane, but at the same time for me that’s really exciting because it pushes me a little bit harder,” said Wagner. “At the same time, it means there’s less room for error. I know I’m going up against some really talented girls and I’m going to have to bring out the big guns so to speak. I’m absolutely aware of where all these top ladies are and I’m ready to bring the competition.”
YouTube sensation Michael Buckley, a passionate skating fan, recreational skater and member of the Icenetwork broadcast team at the U.S. Championships, said he loves Wagner’s attitude.
“She is my type of skater and my type of personality,” said Buckley. “She puts it out to the universe that she wants to win. I like that about her.”
“I just love performing, that’s really what I get an adrenalin rush out of,” said Wagner. “The feeling that all eyes are on you, judges are looking at you, people are watching you, waiting to see what you’re going to do. I love that feeling.”
Canadian audiences are known for being loud and enthusiastic and Wagner cannot wait to feel that energy.
“I was lucky enough to tour with Stars on Ice in Canada and I’m going again [this spring after Worlds],” she said. “I have plenty of experience in front of Canadian audiences and they are incredible.”
She also feels seasoned enough as a competitor to know how to physically and mentally prepare to compete.
“I know what to expect and I know how I’m going to feel once I step out onto that ice,” said Wagner. “I can better prepare myself for it.”