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Wagner: 'I am the athlete that I want to be right now'

World silver medalist turned career around after facing crossroads in 2011
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As the self-proclaimed 'red-headed stepchild' of U.S. figure skating, the ageless Ashley Wagner continues to defy the odds -- and her critics. -Getty Images

Icenetwork will announce its choice for 2015-16 Person(s) of the Year later this month. Here's one of the nominations for that honor from icenetwork contributor Nick McCarvel.

At the conclusion of her free skate at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships, with TD Garden erupting -- nearly exploding -- around her, Ashley Wagner put her hand to her chest while at center ice, her body shaking from what she had done.

"Oh my god! Oh my god!" she yelled, though no one could hear her.

She had just finished the skate that clinched the first world medal by a U.S. woman in a decade. Moreover, she had just proven to herself that she belonged. Really, really belonged.

"That absolutely was the high point in my career," Wagner said days after her silver-medal finish in Boston.

Long an outsider, never "the chosen one" and quite often the underdog, Wagner made it clear this season -- with both her skating and her words -- that she isn't going anywhere. And why would she? She seemingly gets better with every passing year, and her résumé -- one that boasts a world silver medal, three U.S. titles and 15 medals on the Grand Prix circuit, including three at the Grand Prix Final -- is missing just one thing: an individual Olympic medal.

All of which begs the question: How did this happen? How did an ever-mobile military kid who was ready to give up the sport just a few years ago become one of the best skaters in the world? How has Ashley Wagner turned her career around?

'The outsider'

Rewind to 2008 and 2009, when the Vancouver Games loomed on the horizon. Rachael Flatt, a steady, consistent performer, and Mirai Nagasu, national champion at 14 in 2008, were the names American skating fans were talking about.

"I've always been the red-headed stepchild," Wagner told icenetwork, noting that at the present moment she actually is a redhead. "I was so aware of it. I was not that girl. I was always the third or fourth girl, not the top girl."

There were other promising talents as well, like 2009 U.S. champ Alissa Czisny and the bronze medalist that year, a tiny-but-springy Caroline Zhang. After Wagner's near-miss at the 2010 U.S. Championships in Spokane (her third-place finish left her one spot short of making the Olympic team), she fell to sixth in 2011, her lowest placement at any level in the U.S.

It was a moment of reckoning: Change everything and try one more year or leave skating for good and go to school. She was 19, the age of a college freshman.

"I feel like so many people have said this, but everything happens for a reason," Wagner recalled. "I wouldn't have had the confidence to so drastically shake up my career if not for that nationals. I had to take a leap of faith. 2011 was my worst year, but it was the start of my new career. It got me out of Wilmington [Delaware]. I moved across the country. It was a whole new life."

Never say…

Wagner has always fought the uphill battle. The steeper the climb, the more she digs in her heels, boots laced tightly, ready for the journey. Tell her she can't, and she'll show you she can.

"I was a little bit scrappier because of my 'outsider' status," she said. "I had to work harder. Caroline, Mirai -- I think that's what I can credit my longevity to: I've always had to fight for it, no matter what anyone says. That's why, at 25, I'm improving at this point. I've always had to. I simply can't coast through.

"And I also knew that if I stuck it out, eventually my time would come. I wasn't in this to be the 'It' girl. … I like to work hard. I love this sport so much; that's why I do this. If I had to worry about being the No. 1 girl all the time, I would go crazy."

As Nagasu finished her free skate in Spokane in 2010, Wagner sat stone-faced backstage, hit with the realization that she had fallen short of her dream, relegated to being an outsider once again. What she didn't know, however, was that this result -- and the one 12 months later in Greensboro, North Carolina -- would fuel her to reshape her career, one that has continued on far longer than anyone expected, herself included.

"The 2010 version of me would not believe any of this, no," Wagner said, laughing. "The 2010 version of me thought I was going to be done, that I would go to school and live a normal life. But now I'm living in California with a Russian coach. All of these things I'm pretty sure 2010 me would just say, 'Nope.' I've changed so much since then. I was meant to experience that (disappointment) and get out and meet Raf."

Up, down, all around

At the 2016 U.S. Championships in January, Wagner struggled in the short program and then botched her triple lutz at the conclusion of her free skate, resulting in a third-place finish.

"The spin quality wasn't there. The skating skills weren't there. I was sloppy, a little bit," Wagner admitted. "But I was more focused going into worlds. It was a bit of an eye-opener."

Her coach, Rafael Arutunian, laughs at the suggestion that Saint Paul was a struggle for Wagner.

"We are human beings, we are not robots," he said. "Sometimes you wake up and you don't feel perfect. There's nothing wrong with that."

Figure skating, however, often asks for perfection. It's something Wagner has found more and more of as her career has progressed.

"No athlete ever knows how they're going to mature, and if they're going to do so mentally and physically at the same time. It's so complicated," said Andrea Joyce, the NBC sideline reporter who has interviewed Wagner countless times backstage at competitions.

"What Ashley did in Boston was that it all came together," Joyce continued. "It was the perfect storm for her. Everything lined up. Her maturity physically, emotionally -- it all came together. I have goosebumps just talking about it. What Ashley did that night translated across the medium."

Boston's reboot

Determination. Grit. Heart. Focus. Fearlessness.

Clichés all, but Wagner has them each in spades. Sass and maturity, too. And passion. She's pouring her soul into her skating more than ever before.

"Part of what my strength is as an athlete is that I'm a performer," she said. "I draw on real emotions. I'm not an emotional person: I was a military kid; it's ingrained in me. On the ice is the one place where I'm so much more vulnerable. If I'm going through something, on the ice is where I feel it and experience it the most. I have to be very conscious of where I am mentally and emotionally. Things help me from beyond on the rink."

As TD Garden shook around her, Wagner skated to the boards after her triumphant free skate, unable to wipe the smile off of her face. The usually sullen-faced Arutunian couldn't help himself: "Now give me a big hug!" he said, the skater and coach embracing.

Pure satisfaction -- that's what Wagner felt that night. It's something she had only come close to before in her career.

"I honestly never felt that until this worlds," she said.

Then, she pivots.

"But I feel like I'm a work in progress. I have so much I want to do in my career; I'm not done. This finally feels what I've wanted to do. It's what I dreamed of. I am the athlete that I want to be right now."