Ice Network

Wagner rejuvenated after stressful Olympic season

U.S. skater moves on after controversial run to Olympic Winter Games
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Ashley Wagner says that she can handle anything following an Olympic season that saw her endure controversy and the pressure of the world stage. -Getty Images

Leading up to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Ashley Wagner heard all about what she should expect. She listened to speeches about how great the experience would be. She was wide-eyed when told about the people she would meet and the Olympic swag she would receive.

And now that she's been there, done that, she is first to add to the familiar how-great-the-games-are chorus.

"It is so easy to say all those cliché things, and it was all that and so much more," Wagner said.

Then she paused and added, "But no one tells you how scary it is."

Backstage before the free skate, Wagner said she looked at her coach, Rafael Arutunian, and said, "I want to go home."

"Figure skating is the most-watched Olympic sport, and I felt the entire country, the entire world, was watching, and you can't prepare yourself for that," Wagner said. "I was proud I was able to keep my head on straight."

Wagner pulled it together to finish her first trip to the Olympics with a seventh-place finish in the ladies event and a bronze medal as part of the team competition. Nerves and fear aside, she enjoyed the experience so much that she said her "main goal right now is to compete in the next Olympics."

Wagner, who is 23 and will be 26 when the next Winter Games roll around in 2018, smiled and added, "I think Pyeongchang is totally doable. I'm not old. I'm experienced."

Wagner spent this past week in Colorado Springs, Colorado, hunkered down at U.S. Figure Skating's Champs Camp, where she and the rest of America's top skaters had their new programs evaluated. They were also briefed on a variety of topics ranging from nutrition to psychology and got cracking on the upcoming campaign.

Wagner, who broke into the senior ranks back in the 2007-08 season, is more than accustomed to all the preparation work required -- but her approach to this season is entirely different than any in her past.

Sporting a sophisticated, shoulder-length hairdo (gone is the long ponytail), Wagner seemed to be walking on lighter ground this time around. Of course, the Olympics, which she narrowly missed in 2010 and narrowly made in 2014, are behind her. She has two U.S. championships to her credit, Grand Prix medals and trips to worlds on her résumé. Anything she accomplishes now is a bonus.

She's also rejuvenated. For the first time since she started skating at the age of 5, she took an entire month off the ice. She spent part of her break with good friend and training partner, Adam Rippon, and vacationed in Maui. That was back in May, and although she said it seemed "like eons ago" since she took that break, the trip still resonates today.

Thanks to a sponsorship deal with Hilton, Wagner was able to choose a weekend getaway anywhere in the world, so she packed her bags for the Hawaiian island.

"I just wanted to sit and do nothing," she said.

But she knew her time for R and R was limited. She said she made up her mind after worlds, where she also placed seventh, that she was going to give skating another go.

"The pressure's kind of off now," she said. "But I'm a perfectionist, and I'm never satisfied. I realized that skating is still something important to me. It is the love of my life, and I still have the ability to compete. I feel like I'll know in my heart when I'm done.

"I can still go and fight and show those babies I can still show them a thing or two. I'm not a pretty princess skater. People want to watch a woman on the ice, someone who is mature and confident."

For this season, she will be performing to Spartacus in the short program and music from Moulin Rouge in the free skate. She enlisted Rippon to choreograph the short, which was much more difficult than either one of them imagined.

"We almost killed each other," Wagner said. "We were like an old married couple that needed marriage counseling."

Choreographer Cindy Stuart came in as the mediator and saved the program -- and their friendship.

"I called Cindy and told her it was a nightmare, and she came in and proved to be someone Ashley and I needed," Rippon said. "It was important that Ashley had the best program she could have."

Fences mended, Wagner is happy with the program, and her friendship with Rippon is stronger than ever. And they are thrilled to be competing at the same Grand Prix events this season, Skate Canada and Trophée Eric Bompard, which will take place in Bordeaux, France.

For the free skate, Wagner turned to Shae-Lynn Bourne, with whom she has developed a close relationship over the years.

"Shae-Lynn is the woman I want to be," said Wagner, who traveled to Toronto to work with Bourne this summer. "I love working with her because she brings out exactly what I want to be. She wanted to find something sexy, but something kind of vulnerable."

As for her skating, Arutunian said he is optimistic about Wagner's performances this season but concerned about her practice time. She mainly trains at the East-West Ice Palace in Artesia, California, but they have gone to Paramount for an hour session for extra ice time as well.

"Danny Kwan (who owns East-West) understands what we need and has been so nice to let me use Paramount as well," Arutunian said. "I think Ashley can do more technically, but she needs the ice."

These days, especially after the intense scrutiny Wagner endured at the U.S. championships, Wagner said she feels as if she can tackle anything on or off the ice.

The U.S. championships, where she finished fourth but was named one of the three U.S. ladies on the Olympic team, proved to be more controversial than Wagner ever imagined. It was difficult for her to check social media, but she weathered the intense storm.

"After nationals, I feel like superwoman," she said. "I was so mentally fried after last season. Now I can handle anything."