Ashley Wagner has a lot on her plate these days. Even as she tries to keep her focus trained on next week’s Winter Olympics, Wagner has had to deal with a firestorm of criticism following her controversial selection to this year’s U.S. Olympic figure skating team. The 2013 national champion entered as a favorite to win the 2014 U.S. Championships two weeks ago, but she fell twice and ended up finishing in fourth place.
After taking into account her previous titles and world standing, the selection committee still named Wagner to the three-person Olympic team. That set off critics who felt the 22-year-old didn’t deserve a spot ahead of Mirai Nagasu, who finished in third place at this year’s national competition.
A military brat who bounced around the country as a kid, Wagner attended West Potomac High School and spent seven formative years in Alexandria, where she began training with coach Shirley Hughes in 2002. We caught up with the Northern Virginia native before she jetted off to Sochi this week.
Question: How did your time living in Northern Virginia impact your life and skating career?
Wagner: My time in NoVa was the first time that I really got to settle down anywhere. I lived there for about seven years, and prior to that I only lived for about one year in every other place that I was. So being able to settle down like that, I was able to really establish an amazing core group of friends. Getting a life outside of skating proved to be really healthy for me. Because I was able to settle down in one place and work with one coach, that’s when my skating career really took off.
Q: You seemed to be in top form heading into nationals earlier this month, where you fell twice and finished fourth. Do you think you carried the wrong mindset into that event?
Wagner: I don’t really think Nationals was me wanting it too much or trying too hard. I think Nationals was me skating scared. It was letting that one moment overwhelm me. I thought more about what I could lose rather than what I could gain. It was the wrong mindset going into such a huge competition, and I think that’s why I really struggled.
Q: You’ve made it clear that you will continue speaking out against Russia’s anti-gay law in the days leading up to the Games. Between that and the flak from people saying you don’t deserve a spot on the team, how have you been handling all the attention lately?
Wagner: I think some of the things that people said about me were absolutely unacceptable, and it’s a shame that people feel so comfortable saying things like that about a person that they don’t know. But beyond that the support has been so incredibly overwhelming in the skating community and beyond, and I’m really, really grateful for that. I’ve had members of the LGBT community speak out to me about my support for them, and that has been incredible to hear. Beyond that it’s people kind of confirming to me that they really believe that I deserve a spot on this team and that I was meant to be here. That makes it a lot easier to ignore all the negativity.
Q: A lot of fuss has been made about your decision to switch your long program so close to the Olympics. What makes you comfortable with that decision?
Wagner: I think that the decision I made to change my program is insane, absolutely insane. But I don’t think there’s anyone out there in the world that’s more prepared for a change this close to the Olympics than I am. I grew up living a chaotic life, so I’m used to kind of having to adjust and change things on the spot, and I really think that’s one of my strengths. I think my past experiences with moving around so much and having different coaches and always being on the go and making change after change throughout my life has really allowed me to adjust to this on the fly.
Q: What do you like about your new routine, which replaces the “Romeo and Juliet” theme with a “Samson and Delilah” one?
Wagner: This new program is really going to allow me to regain that confidence. It’s more motion type of thinking, and that’s really going to help me. The character Delilah is already such a strong, powerful woman and when I step out onto the ice to compete I really get into that character. I think that mindset is going to help me so much in Sochi.
Q: How much do the looming security issues in Sochi concern you?
Wagner: I’m up to date on all the news and I see all the headlines. Obviously it is something that I’m thinking about, but at the same time I really truly believe in the USOC as well as the Russian Olympic Committee. I really think that they are going to do everything they possibly can to make sure that the athletes feel safe and comfortable because our job is to go out there and compete. I know that both committees will make sure that we can do that to the best of our abilities without any outside distraction. What more can you really do other than just believe in the people put in charge to take care of you?
Q: If you could watch one other Olympic sport while you are there what would it be?
Wagner: Hockey. I love hockey to begin with, so to be able to watch all the Olympic hockey players would be really fun.