Ice Network

Arutunian making up for lost time with Wagner

Coach has been driving force behind skater's late-career renaissance
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Rafael Arutunian and Ashley Wagner have formed a close bond in the almost two years they have been working together. -Getty Images

When Ashley Wagner won her third U.S. title in Greensboro, North Carolina, this January, she didn't just skate two solid programs -- she hit elements in competition she had rarely, if ever, hit before.

Two clean triple-triple combinations, including the triple Lutz-triple toe loop, in her Moulin Rouge free skate. Another triple Lutz in the second half of the program. Seven triples total, delivered with style and maturity.

At age 23, Wagner looks ready to compete with the sport's dominant Russian teenagers and challenge for a medal at the 2015 World Figure Skating Championships in Shanghai next week. For that, she credits Rafael Arutunian, the technical magician she turned to in June 2013, when John Nicks retired from full-time coaching.

"Talk to anyone in the skating world, and they would say I'm old, I'm toward the end of a female figure skater's career," Wagner said earlier this month. "Raf is not limited by that mentality. Right off the bat, he didn't care how old I was, how long I was doing something, who else taught me how to do what. He has an open mind and is willing to figure out how to make it work with you."

The 57-year-old Arutunian, a former Soviet national competitor, began his coaching career in his native Armenia in the 1970s, eventually moving to Moscow. He relocated to Lake Arrowhead, California, in 2000, where he trained champions ranging from Alexander Abt to Michelle Kwan to Mao Asada.

In August 2013, the Lake Arrowhead facility closed. Arutunian took his skaters -- including Wagner, U.S. silver medalist Adam Rippon and two-time U.S. junior champion Nathan Chen -- to East West Ice Palace in Artesia.

In Greensboro, the 25-year-old Rippon also performed career-best programs, standing up on quad Lutzes and hitting glorious triple Axels.

When asked how he coaxes new highs out of skaters thought by many to have already peaked, Arutunian laughed.

"We have a program; we understand what we are doing," he said. "I always say, [there is a] time to go to the show, and then there is a time to go to market, to buy something, and a time to cook. We [isolate] elements, study them, see what works and what doesn't work. And then we put them together until it all works."

Arutunian's team includes wife Vera and Nadia Kanaeva, a young coach and choreographer who competed internationally for Russia in the late 1990s. After each workday, Arutunian drafts a plan for the next day's lessons. Then, while Vera and Nadia deliver it, he stands back and watches.

"You never can just try something (once) and then just keep it (the same)," he said. "All athletes have some places which are shaky. There are always corrections.

"What I like about Ashley is, she improves, even though she is 23. You don't see that much. Basically, you see when ladies are 20, 21, it kind of stops. Not Ashley. She put new stuff into her program."

For Shanghai, the key correction is Wagner's triple Lutz. For much of her career, the skater has admittedly lacked a clear, outside edge take-off on the jump, and technical panels noticed. The flaw can result in a two- or three-point deduction -- enough to cost the U.S. its first ladies world medal since 2006, when Kimmie Meissner won gold and Sasha Cohen took bronze.

At the Grand Prix Final in December, as well as in Greensboro, Wagner hit Lutzes without deductions.

"Raf gives you exercises -- not to (immediately) do the jump but the tools to put everything together," Wagner said. "He comes up with a lot of stroking and footwork patterns, I have no idea how. I'll come in and he'll say, 'I thought of this last night. You need to do this and this, and then a waltz or loop jump, and this is practice for your Lutz.'"

Arutunian is making up for lost time.

"I've worked with Ashley for two years, and basically to make jumps better usually takes a much longer time," he said. "It usually takes four, five, six years to get that stuff done."

Getting full credit for jumps, especially triple-triple combinations, may be more difficult from judges in Shanghai than from the homegrown officials in Greensboro.

"You basically never know if they will start to look under a microscope," Arutunian said. "Sometimes it depends on (judges') 'motivations.' ... You never can say what they will judge, how they will judge. She will do it. We will see what happens."

Lutzes are not the only keys to the podium. Wagner's spins lagged behind those of young Russians Elizaveta Tuktamisheva and Elena Radionova all season, due to what she calls "silly mistakes." It's a topic that clearly exasperates the usually even-tempered Arutunian.

"You cannot do any small mistake and lose points; you cannot afford that," he said, referring to both Wagner and Rippon. "That's what you teach them when they are young. We are trying. I told my wife to count [spin rotations]. Sometimes the skaters are not happy because we are too tough. I say, 'We are tough today because when you get to competition, judges will be tough. The judges are not your friends.'"

Beyond technical elements, Arutunian's team works with Wagner on how to perform her programs for maximum impact, to capitalize on her strength: the less objective program component scores (PCS), which takes into account choreography, transitions and presentation.

"There is the technical part, and there is the other part, how to make it look better than it is," he said. "A big part of the job is to get the right strategy on how to show your program. Her choreographer (Shae-Lynn Bourne) came and they worked about three or four days. We did small changes in choreography; we changed some (jump) entries. So, it looks better."

Wagner sure thinks so. Judging from her remarks on a media call Monday, she's never been more confident.

"This is the best I have ever felt," she said. "I am madly in love with skating, and as long as I can physically and mentally push through, I will be around."

If Wagner competes through the 2018 Olympics, she had better be ready to work. Arutunian intends to continue pushing her technical limits.

"In April, when [the season] is finished, I will talk to her about trying something tougher for next year," he said. "Sometimes, skaters will say, 'I don't want to do that anymore -- it's too tough.' But I will ask her, 'We made it last season. Do you want to go further?' And if she says yes, we will do more. That's the way I work."