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Wagner's confidence high for first Skate America

Hot off victory in Japan, U.S. champion feels like 'everything is on track'

Ashley Wagner has traded in her <i>Black Swan</i> attire for a yellow-gold dress, in which she will portray the temptress Delilah.
Ashley Wagner has traded in her Black Swan attire for a yellow-gold dress, in which she will portray the temptress Delilah. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(10/17/2012) - When Ashley Wagner hits the ice in Kent, Wash., for her short program on Saturday afternoon, she will compete in her 10th Grand Prix event -- and her first-ever Skate America.

If the U.S. title she won in January and the Four Continents gold she took home a few weeks later didn't drive home her status as the country's top lady, headlining the U.S. Grand Prix will.

"I think this [will be] one of my hardest seasons yet, because last year was very successful for me, and I want to continue on that upward slope," Wagner, 21, told reporters last week.

"I'm trying to keep the same mentality. I really do need to prove myself. I haven't proven anything yet; I've only had one good season. I want to prove I'm capable of maintaining the improvement I had last year," Wagner continued. "Everything I did last year worked for me; I need to keep on doing the same things and, hopefully, get the same results."

The last time a lady repeated as U.S. champion was 2005, when Michelle Kwan won her ninth, and final, title.

Wagner wants to break that string.

"I really want to be able to prove to everybody watching I am capable of having two great seasons, that I can keep my head on straight and this past success [is] not just a fluke," she said. "One of the differences between me and other skaters is I'm trying to have this mentality. I'm trying to not skate to avoid losing but to skate to win, to be successful ... I feel that is really going to help me this season, attacking every competition and every program I put out."

Wagner took a step up that slope with a win at the Japan Open in Tokyo early this month, where she defeated two of the three skaters who beat her at the 2012 World Figure Skating Championships -- Russia's Alena Leonova and Japan's Akiko Suzuki -- as well as two-time Japanese world champion Mao Asada. (Italy's world champion Carolina Kostner did not compete.) She unveiled her new free skate to Saint-Saens' Samson and Delilah, putting out a solid early-season effort with a program she hopes will surpass her Black Swan free of last season.

"It was a great opportunity to get my long program out in somewhat of a low-pressure environment," Wagner said. "I was extremely happy with what I put out at this point in the season.

"I wanted something just as good, if not better, than Black Swan, and I was on a music hunt for two months. Finally, I've wanted to skate to Samson and Delilah for a long, long time; I've been saving it for my Olympic year program but decided not to [use it next season] because Joannie [Rochette] skated to it, and I felt she deserved to have it as her music."

Wagner's choreographer, Phillip Mills, who assists John Nicks in coaching the skater in southern California, liked what he saw in Tokyo.

"It's not where I want it to be, but it's well on its way," he said. "What I thought she did really well was keep in character. As she gets stronger, her stamina gets better, it will evolve, just as her Black Swan free skate did last season.

"To bring out a new program when you're defending U.S. champion is always scary," Mills said. "I think it has the potential to be a really great program, and I already started making little revisions to it, tweaking it here and there."

In Black Swan, Wagner portrayed the ballet's Odette and Odile, with hints of the psychopath featured in the 2010 Natalie Portman film; in Samson and Delilah, she's playing the seductress.

"I've always been really drawn to programs that tell stories and have a character," she said. "I portray Delilah as a femme fatale, and it's fun for me. I feel it helps my growth as a skater. I'm working on the expression, and I feel like I'm growing into the program."

"That is true, the character is a femme fatale," Mills said. "That is what Delilah was, and that's what I want Ashley to be. I want her to be sexy, but it can't be trashy. It has to be alluring, because really she is just using her wiles to get the information she needs from Samson, so she can sell him out to get all the gold."

In Tokyo, Wagner stood out the moment she hit the ice with her yellow-gold dress, designed by Jan Longmire as a nod to Delilah's plot.

"I wanted something in the golden or yellow tone, to symbolize the gold she got for selling out Samson," Mills said. "We are going to make adjustments to the dress -- we're going to tone it down with a little extra red or orange beading -- and some adjustments to her hair color as we did last year. I want her to stand out the minute she stepped on to the ice, and it stands out for sure."

Wagner isn't portraying a character in her short program, choreographed by Mills to John Corigliano's Red Violin. Rather, she's evoking the feeling of the film's score.

"I love strong and more intense music, and this one has an eerie side to it," she said. "I'm trying to draw the audience into it with a portrayal of the music."

The short program has been a stumbling block for Wagner; she lost out on the 2010 Olympic team, plus a U.S. world team or two, because of disappointing performances. At 2012 worlds, placed eighth in the short after a mistake on her triple flip. Although she placed third in the free skate, she ended up fourth overall.

"The short program is going well. I've already competed it actually [at a Southern California summer competition]," she said. "Phillip Mills did a great job of choreographing it so it's easy to skate to, which is really important to me. I feel my short and long programs are at the same point now."

As of last week, she was undecided on whether to try a triple flip-triple toe in her short program in Kent.

"I'm getting to the point where, for this season, I definitely need a triple-triple [combination] in order to be competitive," she said. "We are going to see for Skate America how it feels. I'm not going to put out triple-triple if it's not strong and consistent."

In Kent, Wagner's biggest competition could come from two Russians: world silver medalist Leonova, whose flamenco free skate placed fourth behind Wagner at the Japan Open, and 16-year-old Adelina Sotnikova, the 2011 world junior champion who won two bronze medals on the Grand Prix circuit last season.