Ashley Wagner wears her heart on her sequined sleeve.
There is no pasted-on smile, no disingenuous platitudes spoken.
Through a decade of highs and lows as an elite competitive figure skater, Wagner has unabashedly spoken her mind, and allowed her emotions to spill out.
Consider, for example, the last time the three-time U.S champion competed at the Olympic Games.
In Sochi, photographers captured Wagner’s priceless reaction — best described as annoyed disbelief — when the scoreboard flashed her team event short program score. The image went viral, becoming an internet meme.
“You will always get the true story with me. I haven’t mastered the art of sitting and smiling,” an unapologetic Wagner famously said at the time.
Three competitive seasons removed from her individual seventh-place result at the 2014 Games (the team won bronze), Wagner’s road to the 2018 Winter Olympics began inauspiciously last month at Skate Canada International in Regina — the second of six events on the global Grand Prix circuit.
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The veteran opened with a discouraging short program that left her back in seventh place. She pulled up her socks in the free skate, and managed to claim the bronze medal — albeit with help from other competitors who knocked themselves out of contention with underwhelming performances of their own.
“I was furious at myself after the short program,” said Wagner who’s not afraid to wear it when she messes up.
“I left a lot on the table. I am not a first-warm-up-at-a-Grand-Prix-event skater (those with the lowest scores in the opener skate first in the final). I am a better quality athlete than that and I put myself in those shoes.
“So, it was one of those now or never. Just do your job. You’re here for a reason. You’re trained. And I refuse to put myself in that spot ever again. So that was it. I was mad, so I got the job done.”
Beginning November 24 at Skate America in Lake Placid, N.Y., Wagner takes her second step towards the season’s penultimate goal — being named to the U.S. Olympic team for the Games in South Korea.
Winning a medal in PyeongChang is the ultimate target.
“I need to up the ante. I refuse to be the 26-year-old who’s hanging on. I want to be the competitive 26-year-old who’s here for a reason. Going into Skate America, I will be working on my conditioning and pushing myself even further,” she said in an exclusive interview with Excelle Sports in Regina.
“It (Skate Canada) was a nice check-in point for where I am in the season, where I want to go and a good prep for me going into my national championships and the Olympic qualifier… My main focus this year is to get on that Olympic team and it’s about getting stronger every time.”
Wagner is among several skaters who have taken a greatest-hits approach to their Olympic campaigns.
The Southern California athlete reprised routines that propelled her to a silver medal win at the 2016 world championships in Boston — the short program set to Hip Hip Chin Chin and the long to the soundtrack from Moulin Rouge.
“For me, it’s absolutely a comfort thing. That (Moulin Rouge) music really makes me feel something and when I feel something, I can really impact an audience. I’m skating two programs that I know like the back of my hand. I’m comfortable drilling technique. Those things combined is really what’s going to help me control the Olympic year.”
Last season, Wagner struggled to recapture her competitive fire and slumped to seventh at the world meet. She admitted to having trouble finding the motivation to excel in the pre-Olympic season.
“I was coming off that world silver medal. I have accomplished a lot in my career and could have retired right then and there, and been totally content. I think I had to go through last season to figure out what I really wanted to do, what I had left to accomplish in this sport.
“I don’t really feel like I have to redeem too much. It’s more like I had to go through it to get my focus on this season. I feel like I have my head wrapped around it and the rest is going to fall as it may.”
Should Wagner be selected to compete at the Winter Games in February, she would be the oldest U.S. woman figure skater to compete at the Olympics since 1928. She considers that “a ridiculously funny fact.”
“It is a testament to my strength as a female athlete. Here I am at 26 and I feel like I am, honestly, at the peak of my career. I think that it’s important for people to see age really is just a number. I can laugh it off.
“Yes, I am surrounded by girls — some of them 10 years younger than me — but, at the same time, it blows my mind that a room full of adults see 26 as old.”
Ahead of the fall competitions, Wagner showed off her athletic form in ESPN’s Body issue which features tasteful nude photos and video of athletes in various sports. The response to her pictorial was “overwhelmingly positive,” Wagner said.
“I think that skating can sometimes have a conservative audience, so I was a little concerned about that. It was a great opportunity to show people who aren’t really familiar with skating that we are athletes through and through, and that you have to have a very strong, athletic body to do all of these elements. It’s not just dancing. It’s a real sport. I’m so happy I got to do it.”
Asked if there is anything people don’t know about Ashley Wagner despite her lengthy run in the media spotlight, she replied without hesitation.
“A lot of people don’t realize that I’ve been on my own since I was 18,” said the self-described army brat who was born on a U.S. Army base in Germany and moved frequently during her childhood.
“I left my (parents’) house, started paying for everything at 18. Of course, my mom had a huge part in all of this — getting me to the rink when I was a kid — but when I look at my senior career, I made that happen. I did it on my own and that’s something I’m pretty proud of.”