SOCHI, Russia — It was four weeks ago Saturday night that Ashley Wagner's world came a little unhinged. As anyone who has been paying the least bit of attention now knows, the two-time national champion fell twice in her long program at the U.S. championships in Boston and finished fourth, but was placed on the three-woman U.S. Olympic team -- controversially to some -- based on her strong international resume over the past two years.
It was then that things got crazy. People she didn't know, dozens of them, went on Twitter to say she didn't deserve the Olympic berth, even though she totally did. So she swore off Twitter for awhile. She ditched this year's long program for last year's. She did quite a bit of soul-searching. And then she got on the plane to Sochi, was called upon to skate a crucial portion of the Olympic figure skating team competition Saturday night, performed solidly under immense pressure and put the United States in a strong position to win a bronze medal Sunday.
That's quite a month.
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It's not hyperbole to say that over the length of a 2-minute, 40-second short program at the Iceberg Skating Palace, Wagner redeemed herself. That's exactly what she did. She was once again the solid and reliable skater who has been the most decorated American, male or female, over the past two seasons. She did just what she had to do, no more, no less, to ensure that the United States would easily make the five-nation cut after a wobbly start Thursday.
So, afterward, she naturally found herself being asked about redemption more than a few times, that having become the theme of the evening.
"To the people who doubted I belonged on this team, yes," she said. "But really it was more about proving to myself that I could get beyond that competition and that I wasn't a nervous wreck and that I was that strong, hard-headed competitor that I know that I am and that my mother has been dealing with for 22 years, so that was good for me."
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But the part about not being a nervous wreck didn't come easily in the pressure cooker of skating not so much for yourself, but for a team that is relying on your every move. She looked serious – a bit too serious – in her warm-up. She knew this feeling. It was those nerves again, which had made her legs feel like "lead" in Boston.
Her coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, recognized it immediately.
"I was feeling nervous," she said, "and Raf took both of my hands and said, 'Calm down.' He made me look him in the eye and let me breathe it out and relax and said, 'Get into your legs. Relax. Be here.'
"And that's what I needed to get into that moment and out of this 'Oh, it's the Olympics' type of a mindset."
So out she went, as purposeful as ever, and soon she was speeding into the tough combination jump, the triple flip-triple toe -- what she turned into a triple-double in the short program in Boston. There would be none of that this time. She went up for the flip. It came off without a hitch. She propelled herself back into the air for the triple toe. She came down early and two-footed it, which cost her a couple of points, but it was good enough.
Her other two jumps, the triple loop and double axel, were strong. Otherwise, she skated a bit cautiously, but she more than did her job – staying upright throughout, finishing with ease.
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Wagner wasn't entirely pleased with the scores that popped up, but she took the lead in the women's short program with three skaters left, the three highest-ranked skaters in the event. That all three of them passed her was expected, and almost of no matter. The points she won – 7 – guaranteed the United States would make the cut and move onto the final, where, by the end of the day, it held onto third place by three points over Italy and four over Japan.
Wagner had come full circle in four weeks, from basket case to sure thing. She was back to being her old self: the model teammate, the reliable old soul, the skater she always knew she was, even if people who had no idea what they were talking about said she wasn't that anymore.
So, if someone had come to her on that miserable night four weeks ago, and told her that this was how it would all turn out, with all the cheers and hugs that success brings, what would she have thought?
"I would say, yeah, absolutely, I know that's what I'm capable of," she said. "And I knew that Boston, yes, it was absolutely horrible, but it was the best thing that could have happened to me. Because I went home and I didn't work with Raf, I just listened to Raf. Every single thing that he told me to do, I did. If he told me to do three long programs in a day and I thought it was crazy, I did three long programs. So Boston allowed him to train me the way that he needed to and I knew I would come here prepared."
Ashley Wagner wasn't just back to being her old self. She was right.