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Perfect mix turned 'Almost Girl' Wagner into swan

Can U.S. champion parlay confidence into securing three spots at worlds for U.S. ladies?

Ashley Wagner performs her winning <i>Black Swan</i> free skate at the 2012 U.S. Championships.
Ashley Wagner performs her winning Black Swan free skate at the 2012 U.S. Championships. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(02/08/2012) - Take a serious dose of determination, tame it with the wiles of a veteran coach, toss in the sensibilities of a ballet master and top it off with California sunshine: it all added up to a U.S. title for Ashley Wagner.

"I'm thrilled," the 20-year-old said a week after her big win. "It's been the hardest year of my skating career."

Wagner's pursuit of the U.S. title stretched across five senior seasons, two bronze medals and a few near-misses that had her calling herself the 'Almost Girl.' Then, after placing sixth at the 2011 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, she uprooted from Delaware to train under John Nicks and Phillip Mills in Aliso Viejo, Calif.

The move paid immediate dividends. Nicks' famously no-nonsense style suits her, especially combined with her new independence.

"She is different from other ladies," said Nicks, who has coached top U.S. women since the 1960s, at Skate Canada this fall. "She is out here from the East Coast, living by herself without parents, which is sort of unusual. She is a very independent person because of that ... We have that mutual respect that's the basis of all my teaching relationships."

Wagner, born in Heidelberg, Germany, where her father was stationed, moved "seven or eight" times as a child, up through seventh grade. That experience helped smooth her latest relocation.

"I've made a good life for myself in California. I have my own apartment, friends at the rink," she said. "Now it's obvious I am 100 percent accountable for everything I do. Mr. Nicks' lessons are expensive, so I make sure I make the best out of every lesson I have and I'm utilizing our time well.

"The change, working with him in general, and my newfound focus and attention to detail in everything I'm doing have kind of helped up the ante."

The skater had a solid if unspectacular fall, winning bronze at Skate Canada and placing a close fourth at the NHK Trophy. By the time the 2012 U.S. Championships arrived in San Jose last month, she had only one thought in mind.

"It was make-it-or-break-it," she said. "I was extremely confident, but not in a cocky sort of way, in an 'I'm well-trained, and my training has given me a trust in myself and my ability to perform' kind of way. I went out there and knew exactly what I was going to do, because I had done it every single day in practice."

Mills, who choreographed her programs, knew it, too.

"Every day I noted every mistake Ashley made in a log," he said. "I'd write, 'That was clean and outstanding, four stars' or 'Clean and mediocre, one star.' Confidence comes from the number of run-throughs you have under your belt.

"By the time she got to nationals, Ashley had between 30 and 40 clean shorts on her log, and 10-20 clean longs on her long. So there was no doubt in her mind she was ready."

Confidence combined with intense preparation helped her overcome the demons that plagued a few of her 'almost' years, when she missed making the 2009 world team and, most painfully, the 2010 U.S. Olympic squad because of mistakes in the short program.

"You could say I'm a very determined person," Wagner said. "And I think in years past I've had a determination, but it's been kind of this crazy, wild animal that's gotten in my way more than anything else.

"Coming out to work with Mr. Nicks and Phillip helped me realize that while that is one of my positive traits, it's also one of my faults. They helped me learn how to control it and channel it so that it was a functional determination, rather than a crippling determination."

In San Jose, Nicks and Wagner put aside Wagner's quest for a triple flip-triple toe in her short, aiming instead for a clean skate.

"Mr. Nicks told me we were going to see how the triple-triple was, and we were going to combine it with how everyone else was skating," she said. "I got out there and I did some triple-triples in practice that were great, but when it came down to it, I wanted to just skate just a solid program and not have to worry about an enormous opening element."

For her short, to music from Pollock, the biopic of abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, and her free to the Black Swan soundtrack, Wagner gives high marks to Mills, an American Ballet Theatre-trained dancer who has created competitive programs for Joshua Farris, Courtney Hicks, and Rene Inoue and John Baldwin, among others, and exhibitions for Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen.

"I brought the idea of doing a free to Black Swan to him," Wagner said. "Then he told me he wanted to make it realistic and have me pull off being a ballerina. I looked at him and said, 'That's a tall order.' I'm more of a strong, athletic skater than a pretty, graceful one."

"My major concern was authenticity, the integrity of movement," Mills said. "We used the music from Black Swan and the story from the classic ballet [Swan Lake], and we interpreted two different characters. She starts out as Odette, the softer, vulnerable swan, in the beginning of the ballet, and in the second half is Odile, the stronger swan who snares Prince Siegfried.

"To carry off the soft swan, you need to look like a swan -- like you're floating on a lake. She did that, but then after the triple flip-double toe, there's a tiny port de bras [arm movement], a kind of 'Ha!' that hints of Odile. Halfway in, the full Odile takes charge.

"I have to add, her costume, designed by Jan Longmire with layered black petals that looked like they were molting, was sheer genius."

Entering the free skate just three points off the lead, Nicks didn't offer up complicated instructions before his pupil hit the ice.

"He told me to think about the audience, to just go out and do what I'm training," Wagner said. "The fact [that] he went straight to the point with such confidence is part of what led me to trust I could do that program."

The result was a seven-point victory. The 'Almost Girl' had arrived.

Heading in to Colorado Springs for the 2012 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships this week, less than two weeks after San Jose, Wagner still hasn't come off her high.

"I have to remind myself, 'Yeah, I won'," she said. "There's the gold medal on my dresser."

At Four Continents, Wagner will face off against a formidable trio from Japan, including two-time world champion Mao Asada. Then, she will have six weeks to prepare for the 2012 World Championships in Nice, France, where she is determined to help earn three spots for U.S. ladies at the 2013 worlds. To do that, her placement, and that of U.S. silver medalist Alissa Czisny, cannot total more than 13.

When Wagner competed at worlds in 2008, she placed 16th. Two other U.S. ladies, Kimmie Meissner and Beatrisa Liang, placed seventh and 10th, respectively. The third spot was lost, and three subsequent teams have not recaptured it.

"I am partially responsible for why we have only two spots," Wagner said. "I'm the reason why I wasn't on the Olympic team. I'm the reason why I wasn't on other world teams, coming in third: because there was not a spot for me. So I think it would be nice for me to kind of redo my past worlds and make up for my mistakes."

To help get it, Wagner may revisit the triple-triple challenge.

"In the free, I have the double Axel-triple toe, and I got full credit for it [in San Jose]," she said. "For the long program, I don't necessarily think a triple-triple is needed, but for the short program, to even consider being competitive at worlds and hopefully get the spot back, I need to have a triple-triple in the program. I'm completely aware of that."