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PHILIP HERSH / ON FIGURE SKATING

Ashley Wagner largely overlooked among female skaters

Wagner is the only U.S. woman to qualify for the Grand Prix Final that begins Friday in Tokyo, but the focus has been on everyone else.

December 01, 2009|By Philip Hersh

This is the buzz, such as it is, about U.S. women's figure skating this season:

Can either or both of the one-time child prodigies, Caroline Zhang and Mirai Nagasu, get their grooves back at age 16?

Is Sasha Cohen's comeback turning into an alleged comeback?

Will reigning U.S. champion Alissa Czisny ever be able to have two decent programs in the same event?

Is Rachael Flatt's consistency enough to make her an Olympic medal contender?

Does Emily Hughes, whose comeback is real, have a prayer of making a second Olympic team?

In short, the buzz is about everyone but Ashley Wagner, the only U.S. woman to qualify for the Grand Prix Final beginning Friday in Tokyo, and that is just fine with her.

"I always skate better as the underdog," Wagner said by telephone before leaving for Japan. "I would like to think I'm the dark horse of this event."

Luck of the competitive draw helped Wagner earn the Grand Prix finishes -- second in Russia, third in Japan -- that made her one of the six finalists. But Wagner also got there by beating Czisny and 2008 world champion Mao Asada of Japan in Russia as well as reigning European champion Laura Lepisto of Finland in Japan.

And it really isn't that odd to think of Wagner, 18, as the leading U.S. woman, given a victory in the long program that left her fourth overall at last year's nationals.

Wagner had bombed to 12th in the short program, disheartened after botching the opening triple-triple jump combination. The performance in the long program was good enough to make her heart skip a beat -- until it began doing that literally.

Two weeks before the World Junior Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, at which she would finish third, Wagner began having heart palpitations. They got so bad one day during the competition that doctors ran an EKG on Wagner at the rink, according to her coach, Priscilla Hill.

The causes, Wagner said, turned out to be, dehydration, stress and training too hard.

"I have to do everything in moderation, drink more water and try to calm down a bit," Wagner said. "Every now and then it still bugs me."

The irony behind the problem is, Wagner says, a "military upbringing made me very good at controlling my emotions."

Wagner's father, Eric, is a retired Army lieutenant colonel who now works for Honeywell in government relations. She was born in Germany and moved nine times before the family settled in the Virginia suburbs of Washington.

Having graduated from high school last June, she now lives with Hill near the Delaware rink where the coach works. Since she does not yet have a driver's license, Wagner stays at the rink as long as her coach does -- about 11 hours a day. That gives her time for homework in the online courses she is taking from Northern Virginia Community College.

Wagner began working with Hill a few months after her third-place finish at 2008 nationals earned her an unexpected trip to the 2008 senior world meet.

She became the de facto leader of that U.S. world team because the two people who had finished ahead of her at nationals, Nagasu and Flatt, both were below the age minimum. But Wagner wound up 16th, lowest of the three U.S. entrants.

"It definitely wasn't the best experience for me," Wagner said. "I didn't understand what it meant to be there, and I skated like that. I learned how much you need to focus on what you are there for."

Her focus this season, like that of all the leading U.S. women, is to earn one of just two places at the 2010 Winter Olympics, a selection that largely will depend on results of January's U.S. Championships. "It's all going to come down to the long program at nationals," Hill said.

While Wagner insists she has a "nothing to lose" mind-set about this season, she does have the number "2010" in her e-mail address.

"I have learned when I hold back, it is going to be a mediocre performance," Wagner said. "If I go all-out, there is the risk of not skating so well and the chance to do something amazing."

And have the buzz be about her.

phersh@tribune.com

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