4:42 PM EDT, March 24, 2012
Doubt and inconsistency had been Ashley Wagner's faithful travel companions until this year.
They followed Wagner when she left her home in northern Virginia to live and train for three seasons in Delaware with a new coach, Priscilla Hill.
They came along for the ride when she moved last summer to southern California and another new coach, John Nicks.
They preyed on her mind so much Wagner thought long and hard about giving up figure skating after she missed the 2010 Olympic team. She thought about it again after last season, which Wagner called mediocre even though she had overcome months of frightening body tremors finally diagnosed as having been caused by pinched nerves in her neck and relieved by physical therapy.
There she was, good enough to have finished third at the U.S. Championships as a 16-year-old in 2008, bad enough to have finished a distant sixth at age 19 in 2011.
"I didn't want to be one of those people who just couldn't let go," she said. "It might sound amazing to some people, but there really is a life outside figure skating, and I didn't want to waste my time if it was holding me back from my actual life. That isn't healthy."
Wagner had been saving money for a four-year college. She decided this would be the last year in which she spent nearly all her energy on skating unless her results improved dramatically.
And then she took a big gamble, spending a big chunk of that money moving cross-country to work with Nicks, an elfin, 82-year-old coach so intimidating to her that Wagner was afraid to initiate contact with him. Her choreographer, Phillip Mills, who works at the same rink in Aliso Viejo as Nicks, was the intermediary.
"When I passed Mr. Nicks in the halls at events, he looked so intense and strict I was terrified of him," Wagner said.
Nicks, whose skaters have won 16 U.S. senior titles in singles and pairs, had no impression of Wagner until they talked about working together. Then he looked at her record and wondered why it was so inconsistent.
"To be honest, I hadn't taken much notice of her," Nicks said. "To be brutally honest, I hadn't been worried about her."
Five months after she began training with Nicks, even though her results on last fall's Grand Prix circuit were unremarkable, Wagner felt confident enough to tell icenetwork.com, "This is, I think, my nationals to lose."
A month later, she won the U.S. title, earning her first spot on a U.S. team for the senior World Championships since 2008, when she finished a dismal 16th.
Last week, Nicks felt confident enough to say Wagner had an excellent chance to win a medal at the world meet that begins Wednesday in Nice, France, "if she can repeat her skating from Four Continents."
Nicks actually is more impressed by her having improved in each of five competitions, starting with a low-level club event last summer, but he knows the mid-February Four Continents Competition in Colorado Springs was significant for several reasons.
It was the first international victory of Wagner's senior career. It proved her winning performance at nationals was no fluke. She beat a field that included the two-time world champion, Mao Asada of Japan. And judges gave her such high marks they confirmed she was a player on the world scene.
Wagner's score for the short and long programs and total each was her international personal best. The total, 192.41, both topped her previous best by 25 points and left her seventh on the all-time list, with Asada the only active skater above her.
"I was pretty frustrated after the Grand Prix series," Wagner said. "I felt I had skated the best of my life but the scores were the same. For them to give me those marks at Four Continents was very important to me mentally."
Financially, too. Wagner's first prize at Four Continents was $15,000, and she had earned another $12,000 for third and fourth places on the Grand Prix. That validated her decision to quit a part-time job at a LuckyBrand jeans store in the Mission Viejo, Calif., mall.
"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.
"I grew up in a military family," she said. "My dad (a retired officer) made sure I could handle myself. I'm always looking for a way to give myself something new as a person."
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.
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