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Road to Omaha: Nicks confident in Wagner repeat

Reigning U.S. champion has regrouped from hard fall in Sochi, ready to defend national title

Ashley Wagner's sights are firmly set on her second straight U.S. title.
Ashley Wagner's sights are firmly set on her second straight U.S. title. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/10/2013) - When it comes to who has the final word in their relationship, Ashley Wagner and John Nicks are in agreement.

"I went to Mr. Nicks because I wanted him to call the shots; I wanted him to tell me what to do," Wagner, 21, said of her 83-year-old coach.

"I think we have a very open relationship. If I don't agree with something, as long as I give him a solid answer in response, he will hear me out ... I can always give my opinion, but for the most part, I really trust in what he wants me to do."

Nicks -- who by his count has trained 39 national champions in pairs and singles in a 50-plus-year coaching career -- downplays his influence but doesn't refute Wagner's assessment.

"I 'direct' her skating; no, that is the wrong word. I would say, rather, rather, I 'suggest' things," the Brighton, England, native said, in an arch manner that implied, yes, of course, he is in charge. "And my responsibility is to make her do the things I believe will maximize her marks and give her the best result."

Later this month, at the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Omaha, the duo will attempt to lift Wagner to heights no U.S. lady has seen since the glory days of Michelle Kwan (1996, 1998-2005): back-to-back U.S. titles.

"I think I've had a great season so far, and I really want to continue to build on that," Wagner said on a teleconference with reporters Tuesday. "I'm very competitive and, especially after this season, I'm hungry for the gold."

Nicks, whose most recent U.S. ladies champion was Sasha Cohen in 2006, took it a few steps further.

"I feel very confident she will do it," he said in a telephone interview. "She has shown a body of work over the last 18 months or so that very distinctly shows increasingly good second marks (program component scores) from international judges. The quality, the passion, the excellence she brings is obvious to everyone and, I believe, will be justly rewarded in Omaha."

Wagner had a superb Grand Prix season, with wins at Skate America and Trophée Eric Bompard, and a silver medal, behind Mao Asada, at the Grand Prix Final in Sochi, Russia.

But that silver came with a caveat: a hard fall in her Samson and Delilah free skate on the second jump of a triple loop-double Axel sequence that forced her to withdraw from the event's exhibition gala.

Wagner told reporters the injury, diagnosed as a hip pointer, was already in her rearview mirror.

"I'm feeling much better; I'm lucky I wasn't too seriously injured," she said. "It was definitely a pretty bad fall, and I banged myself up pretty good, but I took care of it, and I'm feeling great now."

For Nicks, the important thing was the reactions to the fall, from both Wagner and the judges.

"Of course, she had a couple of falls (also including one on a triple Salchow) that were hurtful and cost her, [but] I was encouraged to see that with two major errors, the judges still supported her wonderful skating and gave her second place," Nicks said.

"After the very painful fall [on the double Axel], she didn't quit. She got up and finished the program and proved she is a fighter, even doing a very difficult jump, a triple flip, at the end of the program."

Wagner's choreographer, Phillip Mills, who also coaches the skater with Nicks in Alisa Viejo, Calif., made sure Wagner reclaimed the loop-Axel sequence as soon as possible after Sochi.

"The first thing I had her do, when she was back on the ice and jumping again, was a triple loop-double Axel," he said. "I knew it was a psychological hurdle that she had to get past, and once she did, she would be done with it."

Mills, who estimates he has trained "more than 25" national champions (if you're counting, together with Nicks, that's at least 64 between the two), has his own take on how Wagner can win another U.S. title.

"I've had repeat champions in singles, pairs and dance, and repeating is more difficult -- not physically harder, but psychologically harder," he said. "You feel more stress the second time than even the first time.

"I told Ashley, 'You have had a wonderful season; you are prepared. Do what Mr. Nicks says, do what I say, and that's it. Don't worry about anything. Between the two of us, we have it covered.'"

In Omaha, Team Wagner will stick with what's been working in the skater's programs, a free skate to Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah and short to music from The Red Violin, both choreographed by Mills.

"I agree with people who say programs are never perfect; you can always improve them," Nicks said. "There are minuscule things -- turns, body movements -- but no major changes to the programs at all."

That leaves just one question mark: Will Wagner risk more difficult jump combinations -- a triple flip-triple toe in the short, a double Axel-triple toe in the free -- in Omaha?

As usual, it will be Nicks' call.

"The one thing Mr. Nicks always stresses is he wants me to skate smart," Wagner said. "He is a firm believer that sometimes it's better to do a program with quality with lower technical difficulty than go out and risk something. Even if it's an 80 percent success rate in practice, it might be better to do, say, a [double] Axel-double toe instead of a triple toe. [A triple-triple] is definitely something I'm considering, but at the end of the day, he is the one to call the shots."

Reporters notebook: Nicks said coaching at the U.S. championships never gets old, except for one thing: "Well, 6:30 practices in the morning don't excite me anymore. The actual nationals excite me. I think U.S. nationals is the finest nationals there is. It's always been my favorite competition ... The U.S. has the greatest strength and depth in skaters, and also there are friends there I've made over 50 years: judges, coaches, officials. It's a great time for me." ... Wagner didn't pull any punches in describing her splat in Sochi: "The first thing I hit on the ice was my right foot; that went one way and the rest of my body went the other. I badly bruised my knee and then hit my head, but I tried not to hit my chin, so I pulled my back up, and ended up throwing out my back. So I was a bit of a mess traveling home from the Final."