Go ahead. Put an entire country’s Olympic medal hopes on Ashley Wagner’s shoulders. Ask that she single-handedly return the American women to glory in a sport they once ruled.
She can take it.
Since winning her first title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last year, Wagner has shown she is not like the one-hit wonders who preceded her. Rather than cracking under the pressure and expectations, she has thrived, giving the Americans their best shot on the international scene since Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen hung up their skates.
“For me, it has been my dream to not just go to the Olympics, but be competitive at the Olympics and be a medal hopeful," said the 21-year-old Wagner, an overwhelming favorite at this year’s nationals, which begin today in Omaha, Neb.
“I think I have proven I can be competitive among some of the top competitors in the world, and that is very gratifying. I still have a lot of work to do, and I’m not where I want to be going into next year’s Olympics. But I am closer."
For six decades, the podium at the Olympics and the world championships was U.S. territory. Americans won seven Olympic titles from 1956 to 2002, along with 10 other medals.
They won at least one medal at every Winter Games but one between 1952 and 2006, and that lone exception — 1964 — came three years after the entire U.S. team was killed in a plane crash. They won 25 world titles from 1955 to 2006 and claimed at least one medal at all but two of the world championships between 1970 and 2006.
But those were the good old days. These days, well, the Americans are a bit of a mess. They have not won a world or Olympic medal since 2006, a worse drought than the one that followed the devastating 1961 plane crash. They will have just two spots at worlds for a fifth straight year, putting them on par with that figure skating powerhouse Georgia — the country, not the state.
It is not much better at home, where six different women have won the past seven U.S. crowns. Should Wagner win this week, she would be the first repeat champion since Kwan in 2005.
The women’s competition begins tonight with the short program. Pairs also begins today, and men and dance start Friday.
No one has felt the effects of the U.S. skating slump more than Wagner, who missed out on the Vancouver Olympics because the Americans had only two spots instead of their usual three. Determined to avoid a similar disappointment in 2014, she left her family and friends on the East Coast and moved to Southern California in the summer of 2011 to train with John Nicks, better known as Cohen’s coach.
“The main reason I went to him is because he has so much experience. He has been with so many skaters in this sport, I wanted him to call the shots," Wagner said. “It’s hard to pinpoint one thing, but really he has helped my confidence in competition."
That showed at last year’s nationals, where Wagner won her first title with an elegant yet chilling rendition of “The Black Swan." Two weeks later, she beat two-time world champion Mao Asada to win Four Continents. A month after that, Wagner finished fourth at the world championships, the best showing by a U.S. woman since Kimmie Meissner was fourth in 2007.
Wagner won both Skate America and Trophee Eric Bompard — beating all three of Russia’s top prospects for Sochi in the process. She then finished second to Asada at the Grand Prix final despite a nasty fall in the free skate that left her with a hip pointer.
She was able to rest and recover over the past month and is ready to finish off the season in style. First come nationals, where Wagner’s biggest competition is likely to come from fellow Grand Prix finalist Christina Gao, 2008 U.S. champion Mirai Nagasu, or one of the past two junior champions, Gracie Gold and Courtney Hicks.
Then it should be on to worlds, where Wagner hopes to bring the U.S. flag out of mothballs and help the Americans get a third spot back for Sochi.