SAN JOSE, Calif. – Women’s figure skating holds marquee status at the Winter Olympics for its athleticism, artistry and beauty – and occasionally, for the drama that extends beyond the ice.
By those measures, the Games scheduled to being next month in South Korea got an early start at this weekend’s U.S. Figure Staking Championships.
Ashley Wagner, a three-time national champion and 2014 Olympian, was supposed to be one of the most endearing, most familiar female athletes representing the United States at the PyeongChang Games. Instead, she will not be there, giving way to a new wave of talent with no well-established star.
Wagner, 26, stood a few feet away and a few feet below the podium Friday night at the conclusion of the women’s singles competition at the sport’s national championships, a noticeable distance between her and the winners of the three medals. The image could also linger as the uncomfortable end of an era in American figure skating. Hours after Bradie Tennell, 19, completed an unexpected run to her first national championship, a committee of U.S. Figure Skating officials announced that Tennell, nationals silver medalist Miari Nagasu and bronze medalist Karen Chen will comprise the U.S. Olympic women’s figure skating team.
The 13-member committee’s decision came despite a selection process adjusted in recent years to allow deference to skaters such as Wagner with international track records. Four years ago, the Olympic selection committee chose Wagner, who finished off the podium at the national championships, over Nagasu, a 2010 Olympian who finished on it. This time, Tennell and Nagasu left them little choice for two of the three spots, and Wagner did not provide as strong an overall season as she did then.
“The discussion between Karen and Ashley was pretty academic,” U.S. Figure Skating President Sam Auxier said. “Karen was fourth last year” at the world championships. “Ashley was seventh. And then third versus fourth at this year’s U.S. championships. It was a very straightforward, clear criteria for selecting Karen as the third member of the team.”
Those criteria to which Auxier referred are relatively new. U.S. Figure Skating officially changed the rules for Olympic selection a year ago, outlining the use of a skater’s recent body of work (including, his or her results in most recent world and U.S. championships) as opposed to simply choosing the top three finishers at the national championships, as had been done in the past and is still the method used in many other sports.
This year, the criteria couldn’t save the native of Alexandria, Virginia. She needed a strong performance at nationals to cement an Olympic spot after a season curtailed by injury, but entered Friday night’s free skate, the more heavily weighted portion of two-part figure-skating competitions, in fifth place. She skated as if undaunted by the pressure, unaffected by having only a month of training for her program performed to music from the movie “La La Land.”
She wasn’t perfect, but she was initially pleased with her performance, enough to hide her face in her hands in the immediate aftermath, overcome with emotion. When her free-skate score of 130.25 appeared, the spunky veteran shook her head in pointed disagreement. She had not erred much. Her passion was palpable. She thought she deserved better.
When it was all over, Wagner told reporters she was “absolutely furious,” a word she repeated over and over.
“For me to put out two programs that I did at this competition as solid as I skated and to get those scores,” said Wagner, whose third-place finish in the free skate improved her overall standing only slightly, to fourth. “I am furious.”
Wagner’s program was not designed to score as many points based on technique or athleticism as Tennell’s or Nagasu’s, but she has never been known as one of America’s best jumpers. Instead, Wagner’s trademark is her skating quality, her performative skills, her transitions – in other words, the little artistic elements measured as “component scores.” For a “La La Land” program that looked strong in all those ways, Wagner earned a component score of 68.00 for her free skate. Tennell, a strong technical skater who lacks Wagner’s polish and maturity in the more subtle aspects of her skates, earned 69.71.
“I understand her disappointment and reaction,” Auxier said. “As an ISU judge, frankly I agreed with the judging. I think when she reviews what she did, her mistake in the short program was very costly. Missing a level in the free skate on a spin at the end, those points made the difference.”
Whether the points should have come, whatever the reason they didn’t, Wagner’s Olympic dream – and probably Olympic career – is over. The three-time national champion and 2014 Olympian was supposed to be one of the most familiar American woman representing the United States in South Korea. In her place will be Tennell, 19; Chen, 18; and Nagasu, a relative veteran at 24 and perhaps the most compelling tale of all of trio.
Throughout this week, Nagasu was asked over and over about what happened four years ago, when the committee chose Wagner despite a disappointing nationals that season. Between then and now, the organization clarified its position, outlining clear criteria for Olympic selection that weighted the last year and a half of results in tiers. Asked whether she thought the committee should simplify its selection process and select the top three finishers at the U.S. championships in an Olympic year, Nagasu paused before smiling.
“That’s a tough question,” she said.
This time, she rendered the selection procedures irrelevant to her case. Nagasu, the second American woman to land a triple axel in international competition, is as technically advanced as anyone that could have represented the United States in South Korea. She is as experienced as anyone. She will be the only Olympic veteran on the women’s team.
“It’s hard for me. I’m ecstatic for myself because this was my goal and my dream,” Nagasu said. “But at the same time, a part of me really feels for [Wagner] because she is an amazing skater and one of our strongest competitors.”
Whether fairly or not, whether she was ready or not, Wagner’s Olympic career likely came to an inglorious end Friday night, when she stood just outside the podium, smiling in the face of deep disappointment, then railing against it, faced with the frustrating reality of her near Olympic miss.