Born in 1991 at a U.S. Army base in Germany, Ashley Wagner developed her elite figure-skating skills after settling in Virginia. Her early career was marked by several near-misses at competitions, but she broke through by winning the 2012 U.S. Championships. After a rough showing at the 2014 event nearly derailed her Olympic hopes, she rebounded in 2015 to win her third U.S. title in four years.
Ashley Wagner was born on May 16, 1991, at a U.S. Army base in Heidelberg, Germany. The daughter of a lieutenant colonel, she moved often as a child, with stops in California, Alaska, Kansas and Washington state.
Wagner learned to skate as a 5-year-old and showed flashes of unusual talent, but she truly blossomed after her family settled in Alexandria, Virginia, where she began training with coach Shirley Hughes in early 2002.
Skating Successes and Disappointments
After establishing her credentials as an up-and-comer on the junior circuit, Wagner won her first international event, the Triglav Trophy, in April 2006. That autumn, she won two ISU Junior Grand Prix competitions to qualify for the Junior Grand Prix Final, where she finished second.
Wagner nabbed her first senior international medal with a bronze at the 2007 Trophée Eric Bompard. She earned another bronze medal at the U.S. Championships in January 2008, but began to feel the need for new instruction. After the season, she moved to Delaware to live and train with coach Priscilla Hill at the Skating Club of Wilmington.
Wagner showed improvement at the 2009 Rostelecom Cup, notching a personal-best overall score to claim the silver medal. With the 2010 U.S. Nationals serving as the qualifying event for that year's Winter Olympics, she delivered a rousing performance in the free skate routine and finished third. However, it left her on the outside as the first alternate to the two-person women's figure-skating team, and a disappointed Wagner referred to herself as the "Almost Girl."
That summer, Wagner was wracked by frightening muscle spasms resulting from a vertebra pressing into her spinal cord. Although chiropractic sessions helped improve her condition, she delivered uneven performances in limited competition during the 2010-11 season, including a disappointing sixth-place showing at the U.S. Nationals.
Determining it was time for another change, Wagner moved to Southern California in June 2011 to train with 82-year-old World Figure Skating Hall of Famer John Nicks and choreographer Phillip Mills at the Aliso Viejo Ice Palace. Living on her own for the first time, she worked odd jobs to help pay for sessions with the no-nonsense Nicks, who incorporated drills to improve her jumps and spins.
The dedication paid off, as Wagner won the Japan Open in October 2011 before notching a gold medal at the U.S. Championships in January 2012. Her "Almost Girl" label gone for good, she earned another win at the Four Continents Championships two weeks later.
After touring with the Stars on Ice show in the offseason, Wagner got her 2012-13 campaign off to a strong start with victories at the Japan Open, Skate America and Trophée Eric Bompard competitions. However, she made her biggest impression with a gold medal-winning performance at the 2013 U.S. Championships, making her the first American to claim back-to-back U.S. titles since Michelle Kwan in 2004-05. Three months later, she finished second overall at the ISU World Team Trophy to help the U.S. squad win the event.
Wagner faced more coaching upheaval when she parted ways with Mills that month and the venerable Nicks informed her it was becoming too difficult to travel. The skater brought in coach Rafael Arutyunyan on to fill Nicks' shoes on the road, and was hopeful of seamlessly incorporating all changes into her program with expectations high for the looming 2014 Winter Olympics.
Olympic Controversy and Redemption
Seeking her third straight U.S. Championships title and a berth on the Olympic team, Wagner instead stumbled to fourth place at the event in January 2014. She was selected for the U.S. team anyway, a decision that elicited some criticism. Wagner then placed seventh in the ladies' individual competition at the 2014 Winter Olympics, with cameras capturing her disapproval at the judges' scores, although she earned a bronze medal for her contributions to the team event.
Wagner set her sights on strengthening her programs by incorporating difficult new combinations. The hard work paid off at the 2015 U.S. Championships, where she set a national record with her score of 221.02 to claim her third title in four years. Choking back tears afterward, she claimed the victory was the sweetest of her career following the previous year's struggles.
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