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Wagner wants to give folks something to talk about

December 3, 2013

Ashley Wagner doesn’t mind people talking about her.

In fact, she’d prefer it.

Figure skating fares better when there’s an American woman in the medal mix at the Olympics and world championships. While that was once a given, with an almost unbroken line from Peggy Fleming to Michelle Kwan, it hasn’t been the case for much of the last decade, and the entire sport has suffered the consequences.

“The U.S. ladies team needs a medalist,” Wagner said bluntly. “I just think for this sport to be able to survive and keep on going, we need a medalist. We need that interest in the sport.”

The two-time U.S. champion will go to Sochi as the best bet to return the Americans to the podium for the first time since 2006, when Sasha Cohen won the silver medal at the Turin Olympics and Kimmie Meissner won the world title. Wagner has been in the top five at the last two world championships, and she qualified for her second straight Grand Prix final by winning Trophee Eric Bompard and finishing second at Skate America.

The Grand Prix final begins Thursday in Fukuoka, Japan. In addition to Wagner, the women’s competition features two-time world champion Mao Asada and Russia’s lengthy list of phenoms: Julia Lipnitskaia, Anna Pogorilaya, Adelina Sotnikova and Elena Radionova.

“We all understand that even if you don’t make it to the final, you’re still one to consider,” Wagner said, pointing to 2012 world champion Carolina Kostner, who missed the final’s six-skater field by two spots. “But the final is an opportunity to show how you stack up against the top women in the world. It’s really important going into the Olympics. I want to know how I’m going to score against all the baby Russians and Mao. And I want the rest of the world to know how I stack up, as well.”

It’s not as if American skaters have disappeared since Kwan hung up her skates. Evan Lysacek won gold in Vancouver in 2010, the first U.S. man to win the Olympic title since Brian Boitano in 1988. Meryl Davis and Charlie White are fixtures at the top of the ice dance podium, with a 20-month winning streak that includes their second world title.

The reigning Olympic silver medalists were the top qualifiers in dance for the Grand Prix final.

But the women have always been the main attraction and, without a bona fide U.S. star, interest in skating has faded to the point where there’s little buzz outside the Olympic year. After winning at least one medal at every Olympics but one from 1952 to 2006 — the lone exception, 1964, came three years after the entire U.S. team was killed in a plane crash on the way to the world championships — the Americans have struggled so mightily they failed even to have the maximum three spots in Vancouver.

While the entire country was once on a first-name basis with Michelle, Tara, Tonya and Nancy, only recently has Wagner been turning heads at her local Starbucks.

“Americans, they have a certain standard for what really catches their attention,” Wagner said. “And a medal is the only thing that’s going to catch their attention.”

Wagner knows finding a spot on the podium in Sochi won’t be easy, with the field as deep as it’s ever been at an Olympics. Kim Yu-na is bidding to become only the third woman to repeat as Olympic champion, and she’ll be challenged by Asada, Kostner, two-time world champion Miki Ando and, of course, the young Russians.

That’s why Wagner has upped the technical difficulty in her programs. After years of waiting until the end of the season, if at all, to try a triple-triple, she’s had the jump combination in her program since the start of the Grand Prix series.

“I think (a medal) is a realistic goal. I think that it’s a tough goal, and I need to be perfect in Sochi,” she said. “I’m not one of those skaters who naturally has enough of everything else to squeak by. I need to be perfect.”

That kind of pressure can be suffocating, and more than a few athletes have crumbled under a similar burden. But Wagner, a self-described “show pony,” has embraced the challenge.

She’s won over international judges with her consistency and good results. She’s done pretty much every appearance and photo shoot U.S. Figure Skating, the U.S. Olympic Committee and her sponsors have asked her to do, even if it’s meant sacrificing what little free time she had. (“I feel like the most boring 22-year-old out there,” she joked. “I get done with training and I just go home and go to bed.”)

And while other athletes are reluctant to address expectations or predict results, Wagner hasn’t hesitated.

“I really won’t be satisfied with anything less than a medal,” she said.

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