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Borscht belts: Wagner moving in right direction

Sochi's nice ice; Skaters split on marching; Firus gets confused for Chan
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For Ashley Wagner, changing free skates just weeks before the Olympics wasn't much of a choice; it was something that had to be done. -Getty Images

Ashley Wagner is used to making some pretty big moves.

Back in 2011, her career languishing after a sixth-place finish at that year's U.S. Figure Skating Championships and a few "just misses" at being named to U.S. world and Olympic teams, she left her home in the Washington, D.C., area to train under John Nicks in Southern California.

At the time, Nicks said, "Ashley is unusual, in that she's making this move entirely on her own. Most ladies I've coached haven't done that."

When Nicks retired from full-time coaching at the end of last season, Wagner gambled that technical specialist Rafael Arutunian was the coach to help her stabilize an elusive triple-triple combination.

A few weeks ago, the two-time U.S. champion made another big move: ditching -- or at least substantially altering -- her free skate just weeks before the Olympics. Judging by her early practices in Sochi, it may be paying off.

"I always like to play a game with myself and see how long I can go before I fall down," Wagner, 23, said after her afternoon session Wednesday. "For me, it was a good practice; I was really happy. Rafa is happy with me, and I usually take his opinion more seriously than my own."

The tricky triple flip-triple toe loop combination Wagner fell on at the 2014 U.S. Championships in Boston last month was there most of the time, as was her upbeat, honest approach with the press.

There was something else: a touch of defiance, tempered by her disappointing performances in Boston and the reaction in some quarters to her placement on the Olympic team despite a fourth-place finish.

"[After Boston] I went home and worked hard for three weeks so I could show everyone that I belong on this team, because I know I deserve to be here," Wagner said, with emphasis on "know" and "belong."

In a way, the last few weeks have been all about making something good happen, out of the disappointment of Boston.

"I went home and let Raf train me the way that he had always wanted to, so that I feel prepared," she said. "When I have that kind of training to back me up, it really makes me feel confident."

Wagner took another gamble, switching back to last season's Samson and Delilah music and some of Phillip Mills' choreography but keeping most of the framework of this season's Romeo and Juliet, created by David Wilson. It sounds a bit patchwork, but the skater said it's working for her.

"I'm a firm believer [that] everything happens for a reason," she said. "That long program went down the way it did because I was uncomfortable with it.

"I think this program has come along further in three weeks than the Romeo and Juliet program did in a couple of months. The set-up, for the most part, is what I've been training all season. We didn't want me to feel this thing was entirely new, because [changing free skates] is overwhelming as is."

A key problem with Romeo and Juliet was the placement of a challenging step sequence in the middle of the program. Now, it's closer to the end.

"I can focus on getting the jumps out of the way," Wagner said with her usual candor, adding, "It's the same jump content, same jump order, just the footwork sequence is moved back a bit."

Arutunian wasn't wild about the change, or it would have happened a lot sooner.

"I had brought it up to Raf before the Grand Prix Final, and he shut that down, right away," she said. "He said, 'No, I've never heard of anyone doing this. That would be crazy.' He laughed when I asked him."

Her relationship with Arutunian, whom she called a "very special man," survived. They compromised: She kept what she called the rhythm and tempo of Romeo and Juliet and changed back to the music, choreography and footwork she favored in Samson and Delilah.

"I met him halfway," Wagner said. "I still think it was a shocker when I sat him down after nationals and told him, 'Raf, I want to change the program.'"

But for Wagner, it would have been crazy not to.

At least the ice is nice

From some journalists' reports, you might think Sochi was a war zone. Writers are heroically battling everything from dangerous tap water to random sirens in the night. Sad stray dogs roam the streets. A Happy Meal at McDonald's costs three times what it would at home.

Never mind. The important thing is the ice is nice.

"This ice is good. It's a beautiful venue for us," Wagner said of Sochi's training facility. "So far, it's great quality."

The surface at the Iceberg Skating Palace is winning raves.

"It's soft but not too soft," Canadian ice dance silver medalist Kaitlyn Weaver said. "You can tell it wasn't made yesterday. It's not so firm that it chips away. And the rink is a true Olympic size."

Jeremy Abbott grew rapturous when asked about it.

 "I love, love, love the ice here," said the four-time U.S. champion, who has been reeling off quad toe-triple toe combinations. "It's got a lot of spring, and it's really fast."

"It's kind of an odd mixture of speed skating and figure skating ice," he continued. "Usually when ice is springy and soft, you don't get a lot of glide; you have to work to push fast. If it's hard, you don't get a lot of spring in your jumps. This is cool mixture of the two."

March madness

You'd think it would be a no-brainer for first-time Olympians to march in the Opening Ceremony. But for those competing right around the time of the festivities, the decision isn't so cut and dry.

By all accounts, participating in the Opening Ceremony is both physically and emotionally taxing. Backstage, it's a chaotic scene, with officials and organizers trying to shepherd thousands of athletes to where they need to go. Said athletes are on their feet for hours on end. Combined with the often overwhelming emotions of the evening, the actual act of marching takes a great deal of energy. It all adds up to one exhausting experience.

Figure skaters seem to be split as to whether they will take part in Friday night's event.

Ashley Wagner will not march.

"At this point, it's conserving energy for the team event," she said after practice Thursday. "Of course, I have a fear of missing out, but I'm here to compete."

Patrick Chan, who will have a day off between the Opening Ceremony and the next time he will likely compete, in the men's free skate in the team event, has said he will march, as will Abbott.

"It was my favorite part of Vancouver, and I don't want to miss it," Abbott said. "For me, it's personal."

One of the host country's biggest names, Evgeni Plushenko, has said he'll sit out the extravaganza, a decision that can't make the organizers very happy.

Unless, of course, he leads Russia to the gold medal in the team event two days later. Then, all is forgiven.

Liam? Patrick? Who can tell them apart!

We can't say we've ever confused Liam Firus with Patrick Chan, but apparently others do.

After Firus' practice session Thursday, he explained that he sometimes is mistaken for the reigning three-time world champion.

"I get that a lot. I don't try to look like him; it's just we have the same bodies," Firus said.

Upon further inspection, there is a slight resemblance between the two. Firus' build and hairstyle are similar to those of Chan, although a better physical comparison might be Max Aaron.

Either way, consider Firus flattered.

"I look up to Patrick; he's an amazing skater. He's unbelievable," Firus said. "When I am on the practice ice, it's hard to take my eyes off him. I just try and be myself, and I don't mind the comparison."

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