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Wagner ready to step up

Teen from Virginia wants her turn in the spotlight

Ashley Wagner is ready for another exciting season.
Ashley Wagner is ready for another exciting season. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/18/2008) - Skating fans who don't know Ashley Wagner may be better acquainted with her in a week or so.

During the run-up to the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Saint Paul, Minn., the 16 year-old from Alexandria, Va., has flown under the media's radar, ceding the spotlight to defending U.S. champion Kimmie Meissner and America's newest wunderkind, world junior champion Caroline Zhang. But as Wagner's bronze-medal finish at the Trophee Eric Bompard in November proved, she is ready to crash the party.

"I love it when things are difficult for me," said Wagner, an 11th grader at West Potomac High School.

"Competing on the Grand Prix senior circuit has forced my skating to mature. I'm a senior lady now, and I need to perform like one."

The 2007 world junior bronze medalist defeated Meissner in the free program at the Grand Prix in Paris. Overall, she barely lost out on the silver medal there, finishing just 0.11 points behind the U.S. champ. Her scores this fall, including a personal-best 108.15-point free skate, are in the range of what Meissner and Zhang have earned.

"At first, I would watch Mao Asada practice and be like a deer in headlights," Wagner admitted. "But then I had a reality check. I know I have to compete against her and all of the other top skaters.

"Right now, the biggest thing is keeping my triple Lutz-triple loop combination consistent. This past fall was the first time I had ever tried it in competition, and it was downgraded, so I don't have too much experience with it. Hopefully, by nationals it will be strong."

Wagner is far from the only skater to lose points on jumps that, in previous seasons, might have counted as clean. Meissner, Zhang and Asada have also been deducted for jumps that, at first glance, looked solid.

"I think the technical panels are really watching carefully where the heel comes down on the second triple in these combinations," Shirley Hughes, Wagner's long-time coach, said. "At the same time, the judges are hoping the skaters go for it and try the best they can."

At home, Wagner practices the challenging combination in both her short and long programs. As far as Saint Paul goes, the teen said she will wait and see.

"Really, it depends on how I feel with it," she said. "The goal is to have it in both my programs, but once I get there, it will be all about how my competition does and how many points I need.

"Watching myself during the Grand Prix in Paris, compared to the other girls, I was always thinking how I could be better. My jumps need to be softer, my spins need to be faster and my choreography needs more flow."

Unlike many top skaters, Wagner is not home-schooled, preferring to keep a full high school schedule with skating practices before and after school.

"It's important for me to maintain that other life," she explained. "I tried home-schooling for half a year, and to be honest, my mother [Melissa] and I drove each other crazy. I missed public school; I wanted to make school friends, as well as skating friends."

Wagner -- whose younger brother, Austin, is also a competitive skater -- inherited self-discipline and a strong work ethic from her father, Eric, a career Army officer who was working at the Pentagon during the 9/11 attack. The skater was born in Heidelberg, Germany, moved with her family to California as an infant and then lived for a number of years in Alaska.

"Honestly, there wasn't much of a choice; I had to start skating," Wagner recalled. "I was holed up inside the house all day, and it was either that or ballet."

When she was six, her family relocated to the Washington, D.C. area, and Wagner began training under Hughes. At age seven, she watched her idol, Tara Lipinski, win the 1998 Olympic title in Nagano, Japan. Then and there, she decided she wanted to compete at the Olympics herself someday.

"I still have the newspaper from the day of Tara's win," Wagner said. "I just took another look at her program a few months ago. It's amazing the performance she put on at the age of 15. I'm already older than she was then!"

Lipinski's feats, including winning the 1997 world title at age 14, would be impossible today. Under current ISU rules, three top U.S. contenders -- Zhang, world junior silver medalist Mirai Nagasu and Rachael Flatt -- are too young to compete at the 2008 World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden.

With three U.S. ladies spots available, that puts the spotlight squarely on Wagner, especially after U.S. silver medalist Emily Hughes' withdrawal from the U.S. Championships earlier this week.

"Of course there is always going to be pressure, but you have to use it to your advantage," Wagner said. "This is a great opportunity for me. It comes at a great time in my career. I have to shine and get my name out there and show people I'm a true competitor.

"Whether I beat Kimmie in the long program in Paris doesn't matter; it depends on the performances I put out at nationals. So many new girls are coming up. It's going to be a great, tough competition."

Other Ladies of Note

In addition to Meissner and Wagner, two veterans of the senior Grand Prix circuit -- Alissa Czisny and Bebe Liang -- are expected to be in the mix for a spot on the 2008 U.S. World team.

Liang, who placed fourth at the 2007 State Farm U.S. Championships, competed at both the Cup of Russia and the Cup of China last fall, finishing eighth and sixth, respectively.

Czisny, who will compete in Saint Paul with a cast on her left hand after breaking her thumb, was 15th at the 2007 World Championships.

Another contender is Katrina Hacker, who won the b>2008 Eastern Sectional Championships. According to one of Hacker's coaches, Mark Mitchell, the skater will add a triple Lutz to her arsenal in Saint Paul.

"At Easterns, our goal was to do all of the jumps clean, under pressure," Mitchell said. "Afterwards, we went back and worked on the Lutz so we could put it in her long program at nationals. This season has been a huge positive for Katrina. Her grades of execution for the elements are always high, but she had to prove she could do the jumps."