SOCHI, RUSSIA – For most athletes, reaching the Olympics represents a pinnacle. For figure skater Ashley Wagner, news she made her first Olympic team initially felt like a two-ton anchor.
Congratulations Ashley, you’ve been chosen to represent your country at the Sochi Olympics! Boo, hiss!
I can’t imagine the pressure Wagner will carry when she skates onto the ice Wednesday evening for the ladies’ short program. Wagner doesn’t even deserve to be here, according to the prevailing sentiment inside the figure skating community after Wagner fell twice in the U.S. national championships in Boston last month and finished fourth.
The Olympic qualifying process is fairly cut-and-dried in many other sports. It’s based on times at national trials and success at qualifying tournaments. No wiggle room there. Figure skating is different, more ambiguous.
U.S. Figure Skating doesn’t just consider one competition in selecting its Olympic team. The governing body weighs an entire year’s results, and Wagner had a strong enough résumé this season that she received the final spot ahead of third-place national finisher Mirai Nagasu.
You can imagine how that decision went over in today’s social media climate. Boo, hiss!
It’s hard not to feel bad for Nagasu, a fourth-place finisher at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Being left home is a tough pill to swallow. But the over-the-top vitriol directed at Wagner missed the mark. After all, she didn’t put herself on the team, someone else did. Blame the U.S. Figure Skating and its goofy way of choosing an Olympic team.
Wagner, 22, absorbed an avalanche of criticism from those who felt she is undeserving of this opportunity.
“It is tough to hear people try and take away my accomplishments,” she said after arriving in Sochi. “Those two nights at nationals didn’t reflect me overall as a skater, and I am glad that [U.S. Figure Skating] recognized that.”
Except now comes the hard part. She can’t stumble and falter again in the free skate program. She has to nail this performance and show people why she deserved the tremendous amount of faith that her skating association showed in her.
A shaky routine will only reinforce the belief that she shouldn’t have been here in the first place and that the folks at U.S. Figure Skating made a mockery of their selection process.
So yeah, no pressure, Ashley.
On top of that, Wagner changed her program after the national championships, switching back to a previous program that she feels comfortable performing. Changing programs a month before the Olympics reeks of desperation, but Wagner felt it was her only option if she hopes to medal. She told her coach Rafael Arutunian to “make me worthy of the Olympics. I’ll do whatever you say.”
“It was the most miserable three weeks of my life,” she said. “[But] it was a great decision.”
Only if she performs it well. Wagner looked anything but nervous skating in the ladies’ short program of the inaugural team competition last week. She executed a clean, confident program as her team won bronze.
“It was on my mind with the media frenzy over the last couple of weeks that I needed to prove to myself and everybody else that has even doubted my belonging here that I am here to compete, to be competitive,” she said. “Get used to it. … That performance for me was incredible. I needed that, for myself, for my confidence. I needed to put out that performance.”
Doesn’t mean she was happy with her score (63.10), though. Wagner’s look of shock and disgust after seeing her score posted went viral almost immediately. She didn’t exactly apologize when asked about it later.
“What you see is what you get,” she said. “If I’m sad, I’m sad. If I’m happy, I’m happy. You will always get the true story with me. I haven’t mastered sitting and smiling.”
Let’s hope she doesn’t change. That kind of response is refreshing compared to those fake, forced smiles we often see.
Wagner’s reaction will be worth watching in the two-day competition. She has a chance to silence her critics. Or give them more reason to criticize her.
Either way, the spotlight will find her. She should be used to that by now.