Ice Network

Ladies trio puts in final hours of prep before worlds

Wagner, Chen, Bell look to secure three spots for U.S. at 2018 Olympics
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Ashley Wagner, Karen Chen and Mariah Bell have been tasked with earning three spots for the United States at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. -Jay Adeff

Three spots...three spots...three spots. Those two words are most likely ringing in the ears of Ashley Wagner, Karen Chen and Mariah Bell.

For the United States to enter three women in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games next February, its top two finishes at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, Finland, this week cannot equal more than 13. That likely means Wagner -- the defending world silver medalist -- must finish on or very near the podium.

"I've been on a team that lost three spots (2008), I've been on a team that didn't gain them back (2012), I've been on a team that gained them back (2013), and I've been on a team that did maintain them (2014-16)," the 25-year-old Wagner, a veteran of six world championships, said on a media teleconference last week.

Wagner, who finished runner-up to Chen at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January, declined competing at the 2017 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Gangneung, South Korea, last month in favor of drilling her triple-triple combinations with coach Rafael Arutunian and reworking her programs with choreographers Jeffrey Buttle and Shae-Lynn Bourne.

"The short program (to Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams"), it's been re-choreographed so it is less of an exhibition and there are more transitions," Wagner said. "I did the exact same thing with the long program (set to "Exogenesis: Symphony Part III" by Muse)."

"I've been putting in a lot of training in the second half of my long so it's a little bit more precise, and you can see clarity in the movement and the spins," she added.

Bourne, the 2003 world ice dance champion with Victor Kraatz, counts Wagner as one of the sport's greatest storytellers.

"Ashley skates with so much heart," Bourne said. "Skaters come to me and say, 'I want a program like Ashley's.' They may not be able to put their finger on it, but they feel something with her. It's important for her to believe in the program and be honest. That makes it easier for her to nail the jumps."

"You're taking something that is very technical and making it beautiful by adding this element of storytelling," Wagner said. "For me, I love a very literal story. I love for people to be able to identify with exactly what I'm trying to tell them. It makes it easier to watch, and it makes it easier for me to express."

Wagner revels in her image as a strong, outspoken woman, but the free skate was created to show a different side of her. It starts with the skater remembering the good moments of a relationship and then slowly realizing the many things that have gone wrong. By the end, Wagner decides it's best to move forward on her own.

"The idea was to show another side of Ashley -- more the grace and the softness," Bourne said. "It's a hard piece to do, and she really has a lot of jumps in that second half, so it's easy to start focusing on the element and not everything that goes in and out of the element. She was capturing the softness in the way she moved her body in the first section, but you could see the separation in the second half. So, we just worked on the story and the feeling, from one step to the next, to make it feel more musical and more like a dance."

After finishing a disappointing 12th at Four Continents, Chen, too, made changes to her free skate ("Jealousy Tango"), traveling to Marina Zoueva in Canton, Michigan, to tweak the step sequence. Over coffee at the Bean Scene in their shared hometown of Fremont, California, the 17-year-old U.S. champion also sought some advice from a longtime mentor: Kristi Yamaguchi. The 1992 Olympic champion and two-time world champion told her to "skate dumb."

"It's a term skaters in my generation used sometimes," Yamaguchi said. "I told her to rely on her training and repetitions, and just let herself go out there and skate."

Yamaguchi has known Chen since she was 12 -- her daughters, Keara and Emma, skated at the same rink as Chen -- so she felt comfortable adding a small dash of tough love to her counsel.

"I told her, 'You can't let your mind get weighed down with things that are not perfect in that moment, because it's never going to be perfect,'" she said. "There is always something, whether it's your costume or your skate or you're sore because you fell earlier in the week.

"She had even mentioned at nationals she felt a little twinge in her foot, and she didn't let it bother her," Yamaguchi continued. "And I said, that's great -- now you know you can get through something and come out the other end with a performance like you had at nationals."

The advice was timely for Chen. After her breakout performance at the U.S. championships, she headed to Four Continents hoping for a podium finish. Equipment issues that have plagued her for more than two years flared up before she left for South Korea; her old boots broke down before new boots were ready. The resulting pain in her right ankle, along with the pressure of competing at her first ISU championship event, combined to throw her off course.

For the past three weeks or so, she's been training in new Avanta boots, with back-up skates ready and a third pair in the pipeline. She's practicing well, she said, even shrugging off a scary collision with a fellow skater at her Riverside, California, rink a few weeks back.

"There's no boot issue, and I've always said if Karen has happy feet, there's no stopping her," Chen's coach, Tammy Gambill, said. "Going into worlds, she has a strong attitude that she's going to give it her best shot and skate two strong programs."

As for that third spot, Yamaguchi had a few more words of advice.

"The goal should be doing what you can do, with the knowledge you are prepared and ready to put out the performances you had at nationals," she said. "A great goal for Karen would be to be top seven, for the team's sake. There is no pressure to medal. All three U.S. girls have the possibility of top seven or eight if they skate clean and things line up. You have to set your goal and run with it."

Bell, the U.S. bronze medalist who trains alongside Wagner, thinks the key to improving on her sixth-place programs at Four Continents is staying relaxed and confident.

"[Three spots] is something that's kind of in the back of my mind that can definitely push me while I'm training, but it's not something I think about very often," the 20-year-old said. "If I go there and say, 'We need to get three spots, three spots, three spots,' it will add extra pressure. If I can stay relaxed and put out two great skates, that's the best way I can help the U.S. get three spots."

Bell and Arutunian have focused much of their training on the skater's Chicago short, repeatedly drilling the first half featuring triple lutz-triple toe and triple flip. Her choreographer, Rohene Ward, visited her rink to fine-tune details in both of her programs.

"At Four Continents, I was maybe holding back a little bit, and if I can go (to worlds) with a little more attack on my jumps, that will set me up a lot better," Bell said. "Overall, I want more intensity with my elements, and then I want to relax during the transitions, so I can show the program component scores a little bit better than at Four Continents."