"I was going to school (two courses at a community college), to work and skating, and I was fried at the end of the day," she said. "I had to choose between doing well on the Grand Prix and maybe making some decent money or making $8.50 an hour and not doing well."
In a sport where top female athletes rarely escape a parental cocoon no matter their age, Wagner, 20, made those decisions herself and, with help from the Michael Weiss Foundation, is paying for the skating herself.
So she left Delaware, where she was living in her coach's house, after feeling too comfortable in the atmosphere Hill had created.
"She was almost like a mother figure to me," Wagner said. "Sometimes that held me back a little. I knew I wanted to be coached by a man and not have that nurturing deal."
Nicks told Wagner exactly what she wanted to hear: He had no intention of trying to be her father, grandfather or buddy.
"I didn't think she needed any 83-year-old friends," said Nicks, who hits that number next month, with his characteristic dry wit.
Nicks said he has spoken to Wagner's mother three times, her father once.
"On the ice, you see a very mature, confident young lady, but off the ice she is sometimes just a scatterbrained kid," Nicks said. "I was a little concerned because she was managing her budget and everything else herself. That's unusual. But she is very independent."
Nicks had heard she also was very strong-willed. Yet Wagner quickly adapted to the complete change in training he thought would develop consistency.
In the past, Wagner would begin the season by hacking her way through complete programs and hoping for the best, then trying to patch flaws in individual sections. Nicks had her hone pieces of the programs before assembling them.
"By the time I got to full run-throughs, I was in shape, aware of the nuances in each section and more capable of doing a full long program," she said.
That has allowed Wagner to reach beyond past limitations. When Mills choreographed her miming a ballerina en pointe near the end of her long program to the score from the movie "Black Swan," Wagner made it believable despite her complete lack of ballet training.
"I'm so much more relaxed now," Wagner said. "When you go out on the ice and have no idea what you are going to do, it takes a toll on you."
She apparently ditched doubt and inconsistency at a toll booth on the way west. Without them, Ashley Wagner has faith her travels are leading onward and upward.