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Wagner forges ahead through season of change

Controversial Olympic selection only latest chapter in tumultuous period
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Ashley Wagner has endured a lot this season, but she's heading into the Olympics with a positive attitude. -Jay Adeff

Ashley Wagner needed a vote of confidence, and she got one from one of the most unlikely sources: Mirai Nagasu.

Nagasu, who earned a bronze medal and placed ahead of Wagner at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston but was not selected to the U.S. Olympic team, sent Wagner a supportive text afterward. And that text has meant the world to Wagner, who has been in need of support in her lead-up to the Winter Games in Sochi.

"One comment that really pushed me through all of this came from Mirai," Wagner said in a media teleconference late Thursday afternoon. "Through all of this, she has been phenomenal. She texted me, 'You belong on the team. Good luck. Love you.'"

Those simple words were enough to put all the naysayers aside.

A two-time U.S. champion, Wagner had been considered a lock to make the Olympic team before she ever landed in Boston's Logan airport. U.S. Figure Skating relies on a skater's body of work, not the results at its national championships, as the basis for selecting its Olympians, and Wagner had been the most decorated American lady over the last two-plus years.

But at the U.S. championships, Wagner struggled, especially in the free skate, in which she fell twice. Her disappointing showing led to much debate as to whether she should be picked for Sochi. Some fans took to social media saying Nagasu, a 2010 Olympian, should have been named to the team in Wagner's place.

Some of the banter on the Internet was so strong that Wagner said she wasn't going to log on.

"Some of things [that were said] were absolutely unacceptable," Wagner said. "It's a shame that people feel comfortable saying these things about a person they don't know."

In the midst of the storm, Wagner said she found some backers. Some of those were from the LBGT community, for which she has served as a strong advocate. She also leaned on some other skaters, getting advice from the likes of Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano.

But getting Nagasu's blessing really allowed Wagner to forge ahead.

"That was really all I needed," Wagner said.

If anyone can weather this latest storm, it's Wagner. The daughter of a now-retired Army lieutenant colonel, Wagner has spent much of her 22 years moving from place to place. She was born on a military base in Germany and has lived all over the United States, from Alaska to Delaware and plenty of spots in between.  

Although she was hoping things would go smoothly in this, the Olympic season, they have been anything but. She split with her choreographer, Phillip Mills; her coach, John Nicks, told her he would no longer travel overseas; her parents got divorced; and then the rink where she was training in California, the Ice Castle International Training Center in Lake Arrowhead, closed.

Even with the start of the Winter Games just weeks away, Wagner isn't through changing plans. She has decided to use her Samson and Delilah free program from last season and is coming up with a new costume for it as well.

The free skate she will use in Sochi is actually a hybrid of sorts, since Wagner will be incorporating some of the choreography from her Romeo and Juliet routine from this season into it. She said she pleaded with her coach, Rafael Arutunian, to let her go back to the old program, telling him she was more comfortable with it.

"The decision I made to change my program is probably … it is insane," Wagner said. "Absolutely insane."

But Arutunian listened and agreed, as long as she made a few concessions. Her part of her deal was that she had to keep some of the moves from her 2013-14 program.

"The way I'm describing it right now is, it's bits and pieces of the old and the new," Wagner said. "I kind of had to meet Raf halfway."

She later added, "Right now, I don't know who to credit all the choreography to."

What is perhaps most important is that she said she feels better about skating to this program than she did to Romeo and Juliet. Wagner enjoys playing the role of a strong, powerful woman.

"I feel I already skate with so much more conviction with this program," Wagner said, later adding. "This new program is going to enable me to get that kind of confidence; that mindset is going to help me in Sochi."

Wagner won't be wearing the same dress she wore last season, however. That's because it's housed in the World Figure Skating Museum, which is based at U.S. Figure Skating's headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. A new dress is in the works, courtesy of costume designer Jan Longmire, and Wagner said she will stick with the same yellow color she sported with her previous Samson and Delilah program.

The change in costume actually hasn't been too problematic, Wagner said.

"It's kind of a welcome distraction to play around with sparkles and spandex," Wagner said.

Now all she has to do is train her new/old program and get ready for the biggest stage of her career. But in a way, the hard part is already over.

"My dream has come true," she said. "I just need to skate through the rest of it."

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