Wagner leads (relatively) old guard for US figure skating

Wagner leads (relatively) old guard for US figure skating

Published Jan. 16, 2017 3:39 p.m. ET

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Ashley Wagner remembers being glued to her TV in the winter of 1998, when a sprightly young figure skater named Tara Lipinski was dazzling the judges on her way to gold at the Nagano Olympics.

Wagner was 7 years old at the time. Lipinski was just 15.

Nearly two decades later, Wagner is still trying to follow Lipinski's footsteps, albeit in much different fashion. That dainty skater who captured Wagner's imagination all those years ago became the youngest Olympic champion in history, while Wagner will head to Kansas City for the U.S. figure skating championships this week aiming to become one of the oldest next year in South Korea.

She is at the forefront of what might best be described as the antithesis of a youth movement, a push by American figure skating's old guard to finally return the U.S. to the Olympic podium.


Wagner would be 26 in Pyeongchang. Mirai Nagasu would be 24. Gracie Gold would be 23.

Not exactly young in the world of figure skating.

''I've always admired Michelle Kwan,'' Wagner said of the two-time Olympic medalist, who spent a decade competing at the elite level. ''She clawed onto that top spot for so long, and that's something I always wanted in my career.

''I've been around for so long, I've seen athletes come and go,'' she continued, ''and I've been able to cling to my spot because I'm so hungry to be something in this sport, and be remembered for achieving something great. Whether that's my world silver medal or an Olympic medal down the road, we'll see.''

Wagner qualified for the 2014 Sochi Olympics and finished sixth in the ladies' competition, then helped the U.S. team win a bronze medal in the newly formed team event.

But along with Gold's fourth-place finish and ninth for Polina Edmunds, the Americans once more struggled to find Olympic success. The nation that produced champions such as Scott Hamilton and Brian Boitano on the men's side and Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill on the women's side has not had a ladies' medalist since Sasha Cohen won silver at the 2006 Torino Games.

The drought follows 11 straight Winter Olympics with at least one ladies figure skating medal.

So perhaps it's a good thing the U.S. team could be on the experienced side in Pyeongchang. So many of the missteps in recent years have come with teams of youngsters - Edmunds had not yet turned 16 in Sochi - rather than skaters who have been through the grind.

Yes, there's something to be said for youthful exuberance in a sport where showmanship is often rewarded, but there is also a benefit to knowing how to deal with nerves on a world stage.

''Ashley has said this before, I think: We're like bottles of wine,'' Nagasu said, ''and we just get better with age. I've really learned through figure skating there are going to be ups and downs.''

Likewise, the triumvirate of top Americans has learned how to deal with them.

Gold heads to Kansas City this week after a lackluster Grand Prix season, but the two-time and reigning U.S. champion said her confidence is ''surprisingly high.'' She believes a strong performance can remind everyone that she has what it takes to land on the Olympic podium.

''I know some people have written me off,'' Gold said, ''that they would consider it a comeback to have a really great performance at nationals. But I know if I can defend my title and make it to the world championships, I still have a really great chance of winning a medal.''

Still, it would be a rarity for a 20-something to win Olympic gold in South Korea.

Only twice since the 1964 Innsbruck Games has the ladies gold medalist been 21 or older, and far more common is a teenager atop the medal stand. Adelina Sotnikova was 17 at the Sochi Games. Kim Yuna was 19 in Vancouver. Sarah Hughes was 16 when she became the last American gold medalist at the 2002 Olympics, the same age as Oksana Baiul when she won gold in 1994.

In fact, Wagner would be the second-oldest Olympic champion if the American were to win in South Korea, behind only Britain's Madge Syers, who won the first gold medal at the 1908 London Games.

Wagner's Olympic pursuit begins ramping up against his week in Kansas City - a coincidence, as it turns out. It was there that she watched Lipinski win gold all those years ago, because her father was stationed for a brief time that winter at nearby Fort Leavenworth.

''I was little teeny baby when I was in Kansas City,'' Wagner said. ''That's where my winter dream really began, and I think that when I was living there - I lived this moment, this girl that didn't look much older than me, honestly, achieved something that looked absolutely unreal. So cool.

''I looked at my mom and I said, `That's what I want to be. I want to be an Olympic champion,''' Wagner said. ''And that's what has been driving me through the course of my career.''