BOSTON — Growing up, the first thing Ashley Wagner did every summer when her family returned to Seabeck and Scenic Beach State Park was hop on her dinky garage-sale bike and head straight to the shoreline of Hood Canal. Then she and her brother, Austin, would pedal madly off on the paths among the soaring Douglas firs in search of the park ranger, their grandfather.
“That was always one of our favorite parts,” said Wagner, recalling the opening ritual of her annual visit to the Kitsap Peninsula, where both of her parents grew up.
That the park overlooks a mountain range named Olympic has turned out to be especially apt: The day before she reminisced about the place she thinks of as “home base,” Wagner had been named to the 2014 U.S. Olympic figure skating team, her first after just missing the cut in 2010.
Declaring herself “over the moon,” the 22-year-old added in a tone tinged with awe: “This morning, I woke up an Olympian.”
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Wagner made it official over the weekend, skating cleanly but finishing fourth as the U.S. earned a bronze medal in the team competition Sunday. Japan’s Mao Asada fell but finished ahead of her in third. Wagner will compete in the women’s short program Feb. 19, with the free skate the next night.
Wagner has come a long way since she first took to the ice 17 years ago. Wearing a protective helmet, Wagner began skating at the age of 5 in a “Mommy and Me” class in Alaska, where her father, Eric, was stationed as an Army officer. “Me” was better than “Mommy” by the second class. The helmet soon came off.
The family then spent about three years back in Washington state, first in Tacoma, where little Ashley took lessons at Sprinker Recreation Center, and then in Vancouver, Wash., where “the little spit of a thing” was taught at Mountain View Ice Arena by Dody Teachman, who had coached two-time Olympian Tonya Harding and now teaches at Lloyd Center Ice Rink in Portland.
“She was an amazing little girl even then,” recalled Teachman of her third-grade pupil, who now trains in Southern California. “She got on the ice and she worked the whole time she was there. She would not leave something until she had accomplished it. I don’t think I ever had to tell her to get to work. Instead I would have to tell her, ‘Why don’t you give that a rest for a while?’ ”
Soon after learning her axel and her double jumps, the youngster — whose military family moved eight times in nine years — was off to a new rink in a new state.
“It’s hard when you have students leave,” said Teachman. “It was especially hard when Ashley left.”
When the skater takes the ice in Sochi next week for the chance at an individual medal, Teachman will be glued to her TV, likely shedding tears of pride while also fighting some nerves, hoping that her former student will relax and “let her body do what it knows how to do.”
At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston last month, Wagner’s body forgot. Coming into the free skate in fourth place after the short program, she fell twice while performing to music from “Romeo and Juliet.” Shocked, she confessed that as soon as she heard her name announced, her legs had turned to lead, “kind of like my evil twin took over my body for 4 minutes and 10 seconds.” She finished fifth in the free skate and fourth overall, with only three spots on the U.S. team.
Wagner spent a sleepless night awaiting the next day’s decision. Unlike some Olympic sports, U.S. Figure Skating chooses its team based on a series of events rather than on a strict 1-2-3 finish at nationals. As a two-time national champ with a bronze medal at the 2013 Grand Prix Final, Wagner knew her body of work was strong. Ironically, it was her fifth-place finish at the 2013 World Championships that helped earn the U.S. a third Olympic spot, the spot she was now hoping for. But would she get it?
“I just kept thinking over and over again, Did I do enough? Do I have enough in the bank? Will they see beyond one bad performance?” Wagner said, listing her attempts at distraction: video calling a couple of old friends, having a “nice, big glass of wine” with her mother and her brother, watching “The Seven-Year Itch.”
About 30 minutes before the noon announcement Jan. 12, Wagner was sitting in the stands at Boston’s TD Garden, watching training partner Adam Rippon warm up for the men’s free skate, when she received the life-changing text message. Knowing that her selection was still a secret, she stifled her tears of joy and found a quiet corner in which to calm herself.
It was an excellent choice, said Gracie Gold, who won the event and was also named to the team. “Ashley has a great track record,” said Gold, “and she will show very well in the Olympics.”
Not everyone agreed. Her selection brought criticism, particularly in social media, as Wagner
bumped third-place Mirai Nagasu, an Olympic veteran who nearly medaled at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Wagner understood that the decision would not be without controversy, but vowed to grow from it.
“I danced with danger last night and I never want to feel that uncomfortable again,” she said, facing a media throng. “U.S. Figure Skating is giving me the opportunity to go into the Olympics and make everyone forget about this performance, which I am fully prepared and very excited to do.”
It’s not the only controversy of these games for Wagner, who has become a leading voice among athletes against Russia’s law forbidding “gay propaganda.”
On the “Today” show in early January, tennis legend Billie Jean King, a leading advocate for gay athletes’ rights, said she felt heartened by Wagner’s decision to speak out.
Wagner, who has vowed to continue voicing her convictions, said she felt honored, if a bit surprised.
“The fact that an icon would even utter my name or have any idea of who I am is absolutely unreal. I just said something I believed in, and I wish it wasn’t such a big deal, because to me it’s not. It’s just a matter of fact.”
A few weeks ago, Wagner announced a dramatic change of plan: She would drop “Romeo and Juliet” and instead perform her free skate in Sochi to “Samson and Delilah,” the music to which she skated last season. A fiery, passionate skater, Wagner never latched on to the Juliet character, and has said repeatedly she must be perfect to get on the Olympic podium.
She had reportedly suggested to her coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, earlier this season that she switch; after nationals, he acquiesced.
Teachman said she believes it’s a good move. “When she’s got her head straight and knows she’s got something to do, she goes out there and does it. I think she can do that with ‘Samson and Delilah.’ ”
After the games, Wagner is looking forward to some time off and, hopefully, a trip back to her beloved Seabeck.
“Moving that much, learning new environments, (needing to make) new friends … I wanted to make sure they had a sense of home,” said her mother, Melissa James. A framed photo of the snow-capped Olympics hung in every home they had, and the kids had annual photos of themselves in wet suits on the beach.
“Seabeck is slow to change,” said Wagner, with a soft smile. “And it was nice to have that. Some of my happiest memories are there.”