SAN JOSE, Calif.—When Ashley Wagner walked into the mixed zone after the women’s competition at the U.S. Figure Skating National Championships, practically the first words out of her mouth were, “I’m furious.”
The reason: Wagner found herself in fourth place in the overall standings. The last time Wagner found herself off the podium at a national championships was 2014, also an Olympic year. Wagner had fallen multiple times in her long program, which accounted for her fourth place finish. That year, United States Figure Skating Association, which is not bound by the results at nationals when determining Olympic team composition, decided to send Wagner to the Games in Sochi anyway, citing her strong competitive track record leading up to the event. This track record included a fifth place finish at the previous year’s world championship and a medal in the Grand Prix Final. Wagner’s spot came at the expense of Mirai Nagasu, the bronze medalist at the national championships, who skipped over for the 2014 Olympic team.
“I’m really mad that I’m in this position again,” Wagner said.
But unlike in 2014 when any anger Wagner must’ve felt must’ve been self-directed—after all, she skated a weak short program and fell twice in the long—this time Wagner was angry at the judges. “I am a performer and that second mark is just not there,” Wagner said, referring to the program components score. (In an earlier era, the PCS was called “artistic impression.”) Wagner’s PCS in both the long and short were unusually low—below even newly crowned national champion Bradie Tennell’s. Tennell is an excellent jumper and technician, but her emotional range extends from the bottom to the top of a shrug, making her the opposite of Wagner.
“You can always say that I put myself in this spot,” Wagner said, probably referring to her mistakes on a couple of jumps, “but I think I had some help getting there.”
When asked if she felt that she might be harming her chances of being selected by her frankness, Wagner responded, “I feel like I need to stick up for myself.”
Can Wagner expect to be placed on the Olympic team as she was in 2014? Who among the top three would you bump for Wagner? Bradie Tennell is the newly crowned national champion. It would be inconceivable to leave her at home. And what about third place finisher Karen Chen? Skating while sick, she gutted out her long program and finished 2.4 points ahead of Wagner. More significantly, Chen placed fourth at last year’s world championships. That competition is an important part of the criteria the selection committee considers when determining team composition. It’s hard—though not impossible—to imagine the committee bumping Chen in favor of Wagner.
Which brings us to Nagasu, the runner-up. During the post-competition press conference, she (and Tennell and Chen) were asked whether or not the team should be chosen solely based off the results of national championships or should other criteria be considered when choosing the Olympic team. “Tough question,” she started and all of the reporters laughed. She said that if you asked her that question four years ago, she would’ve said top three, but this time around, she felt confident enough in her body of work leading up to championships.
“Last Olympic cycle, I felt so disappointed in myself,” Nagasu said. “I did end up in third place [at national championships] but I was a little bit careless over the season and didn’t put out the body of work that I needed.”
“I didn’t want to feel that same way this year,” she continued. “I took on the full responsibility of becoming a stronger competitor and person. I wasn’t going to let a decision that wasn’t mine keep me from my dreams.”
Since her failed bid to go to Sochi, Nagasu has learned how to do a triple axel, which she debuted in competition this year. This week, it’s clear from audience reaction that she’s the sentimental favorite, largely due to what happened to her in 2014. And tonight, Nagasu brought the house down with her long program, which wasn’t perfect—Tennell was the only skater in the top four who executed all of her planned elements—but good enough for the silver medal. I can’t imagine a scenario in which the selection committee decides to skip over Nagasu yet again. There would be rioting in the streets.
Yet Wagner, when asked if she believed that she should be on the 2018 Olympic team, said, “Yes.”