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High-flying Wagner calls golden fall 'a good start'

Girl of the moment prizes staying power, Olympic spot above all

Ashley Wagner poses with a couple of aspiring skaters at Rockefeller Center.
Ashley Wagner poses with a couple of aspiring skaters at Rockefeller Center. (Lynn Rutherford)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(11/26/2012) - With back-to-back Grand Prix wins, Ashley Wagner has potential sponsors and mainstream media calling and many U.S. skating fans hoping for a ladies world title next March.

Still, the U.S. champion has seen enough ups and downs to know that a disappointing short program or a fall or two in a free skate may end some of the golden buzz.

"I am fully aware that while I am doing well, it's not entirely about what I do now -- it's about maintaining it and performing under pressure when it really counts," the 21-year-old skater said.

"The Grand Prix [wins] count for something, but at the end of the day, they are not what qualify me for worlds and they are not what will get me on top of the podium at worlds either," she continued. "This season is going to be all about endurance. I need to be able to maintain this success from now through March, hopefully."

Coach and choreographer Phillip Mills, who, with primary coach John Nicks, trains Wagner in Aliso Viejo, Calif., thinks the skater has expectations under control.

"We planned this year carefully, to build Ashley up during the season," he said. "We're growing the programs in a conservative way. We're not putting all of the goodies -- like the triple-triple [combination] -- out there right away."

After a clean free skate to Samson and Delilah lifted Wagner to the Trophée Eric Bompard title in Paris, she took a brief but triumphal foray through New York City, stopping at Rockefeller Center for a Today Show interview and treating the crowd to a holiday exhibition number.

From there, it was off to meetings with potential sponsors and high-profile sports outlets, including Sports Illustrated. The wins are starting to be noticed: Earlier this month, agent David Baden of IMG announced his client was a Nike athlete.

"Nike sees Ashley as a young woman who trains hard with the goal of the Olympics, someone who can be a great role model and can inspire young girls," Baden said. "She is going to do a series of appearances for Nike in stores. There is a lot to be worked out over the next several months."

Wagner, who sported Nike gear during her practices in Paris, sees joining the company of Olympians like Allyson Felix, Alex Morgan and Paola Espinosa as another vote of confidence.

"I've had a poster of all of the Nike women on my wall for a while; I ripped it out from a magazine and look to it for inspiration," she said. "Years ago, I told my brother (Austin), 'That's what I want to be; I want to be at the level of those athletes.' I'm so lucky. With everything I have been doing in skating, this is one of the benefits."

Wagner's New York trip concluded with a visit to PS 861, the Staten Island School of Civic Leadership, where she met one of the third-grade classes she has been interacting with for several months under the Classroom Champions mentoring program.

"We usually Skype and send video messages, so it's a great opportunity to reach out," she said. "Then it's back to California. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but by the time I have to head out to the Grand Prix Final in Sochi, I will be prepared."

Icenetwork.com: You tweeted you were sick in Paris. How did you manage to win?

Wagner: I woke up the day of the long program and I was like, 'Oh no, it's a head cold.' I didn't really feel like I was present; I was kind of delirious, really achy and stuffy. Before I went out, I told Mr. Nicks, 'I don't know what is going to happen,' but he told me to relax, do what I needed to do and rely on my training to back me up and push me through it.

That is what I did, and surprisingly enough, for how I felt, it was one of the easiest programs I performed in awhile. I don't know if the adrenaline kicked in or something, but for how I felt, I was really happy with it.

Icenetwork.com: Would you have been able to do that a few seasons ago?

Wagner: I used to get nervous to compete, and I still do, but now I get excited to perform. I was anxious, and I wanted to get out there. The fact I enjoy skating that program so much really helps. I identify with the character (Delilah), and to receive a standing ovation from an international audience is always such an honor. Some people are adrenaline junkies, and that's what [performing] does for me.

Icenetwork.com: As the season goes on, the competition might get tougher. Yu-Na Kim, the Olympic champion, has said she will return. (Kim is slated to compete at the NRW Trophy next month in Dortmund, Germany, while Wagner is at the Grand Prix Final.)

Wagner: I try to be aware of all of the skaters I am going to be competing against. That is kind of how I set up my training. I know Yu-Na Kim is coming back, and Mao [Asada] will probably get stronger, and the Russians will get stronger as the season goes on. I am going to need to do the exact same thing. So I am aware of it, but I'm not focusing on it. I think if you are focusing on other people, you are not working hard enough on yourself.

"Ashley is a confidence builder: The more she wins, the stronger she gets," Mills said. "She does triple [flip]-triple [toe] and double Axel-triple toe almost every single day in her run-throughs, but I [emphasize] the overall quality of the programs first ... We do know that at the Grand Prix Final, nationals, worlds, she will need those big guns."

Icenetwork.com: Are you planning to add more difficulty as the season progresses?

Wagner: I think the Grand Prix Final will be a great opportunity to get the triple-triple out there with less pressure, because there is not as much at stake. I'm not saying it's a no-pressure event -- there definitely is some -- but I think it will be a great opportunity to try the triple-triple with people watching, in front of a judging panel.

At the same time, I feel the reason I've had so much success lately is I'm confident in all of the jumps I am doing. The success rate in practice is 90 percent, so when I go out to perform, I know I can do it in competition. If the triple-triple is not there [in practice], I'm not going to want to risk it. Right now, the Axel-toe [in the free] seems much more plausible to be there. The triple-triple in the short would be the icing on the cake.