Two summers ago, figure skater Ashley Wagner was gliding through one of her workouts at her home rink in Wilmington, Del., when her hands began to shake. No big deal, Wagner figured. Maybe she was just tired. Tired of hearing the comments that she was skating's Almost Girl -- fourth when trying to make three-person teams or, as in the 2010 Olympic year, third when trying to make two-person teams. Maybe she was tired of the grind imposed on a child of a military family that moved nine times in her childhood. Or maybe she was just plain tired of her sport's year-round wear and tear with no major competition in front of her.
But as workouts intensified, her arms also began shaking, then her core, and later, as she remembered, "I had full-on body tremors. I had no idea what was happening." Wagner was stumped and so were several doctors.
"When I went to the best neurologist in Philadelphia and he said he just didn't know, I started to panic," she recalls. A promising career was only part of what was on the line. "I was having heart palpitations. I would do a lap and I was breathing as if I had been sprinting."
Wagner eventually went to see a chiropractor, who discovered that her C-2 vertebra was pressing into her spinal cord, squeezing tender nerve muscles. "My neck is like this, she says, holding her hand at an exaggerated arc, "instead of a natural curve."
Wagner started undergoing the regular chiropractic sessions she still attends twice weekly in order to keep herself properly aligned. The sessions eased the strain on her neck, but even so, her current breakout season with a pair of triumphs at international Grand Prix meets seemed a distant thought for a 21-year-old skater who was eyeing the Sochi Games, but couldn't yet be considered a serious medal contender.
With a series of near misses at national and international meets, Wagner began itching for a change from her home rink. The daughter of LTC Eric Wagner had amassed some heavy frequent traveler miles. Over a 10-year period, her landing spots included Heidelberg, Germany -- she was born there on a U.S. military base -- San Luis Obispo, Calif., Eagle River, Alaska, Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Tacoma, Wash., Vancouver, Wash., Woodbridge, Va., Alexandria, Va. and Wilmington.
From age six, when she lived in Alaska, Wagner was skating and seeing herself as Olympic champion Tara Lipinski, who struck Olympic gold at 15. "She was so young and she looked like she was just having fun," Wagner says. "She made it seem attainable."
Then last year, Wagner moved by herself to train in Aliso Viejo with John Nicks, the British-born 83-year-old former world champ in pairs who had mentored Peggy Fleming, Kristi Yamaguchi and Sasha Cohen, among others. This was a greater commitment on two fronts.
"For the first time, I was putting distance between me and my family," Wagner says. "And the California lifestyle is really not for me."
To pay the $80,000 in annual expenses for coaching, choreography and costumes, she worked a series of odd jobs to help supplement her income from skating competitions and shows. She'd drive from practice to a clothing store where she'd sell jeans for $9 an hour without commission. "For the first time, I was 100 percent financially independent," she says. "It was good to have control of that part of my life. I was the boss."
But not at the rink. "Mr. Nicks was intimidating from the minute I walked in," she says. It is an intimidation of wisdom, tenure and glare rather than physical presence. "I mean he's like four-foot-three," she says, "and he's only been doing this since dinosaurs started walking. But he knows how to get the most out of you. He changed my skating." Wagner recalls him skipping niceties. "He told me right off, 'What I see in you is a talented skater who can't perform under pressure,' she says. "He was so blunt. It was what I needed to hear."
Nicks rapidly upgraded Wagner's technique, first improving her spins -- what she calls "easy points" -- and then her previously inconsistent jumps. "He has changed the technique so I'm getting out of the jumps faster," she says. "It's safer to land." And there's so much going on in my programs, it's just way too hard to fall down and keep going. If the jump is not perfect, fight for it. I never imagined I'd improve so much in such a short period of time."
Wagner won the Four Continents title at the end of last season, topping Japan's Mao Asada, a two-time world champ and Olympic silver medalist in Vancouver. She then won both of her competitions on the Grand Prix circuit this season: Skate America in Kent, Wash., last month and Trophee Eric Bompard in Paris a week ago.
She qualified for the Grand Prix final next month at the 2014 Olympic venue in Sochi, and she'll skate at U.S. Nationals in January in Omaha, where she should qualify for the world championships in London, Ont., in March. That competition is critical for the U.S. team to qualify the maximum number of skaters to the Olympics. The two U.S. women must total no more than 13 qualification points (e.g. five for a fifth-place finish and eight for an eight-place finish) or win a gold or silver medal in order to earn the maximum three berths for the Sochi Games.
In the post-Michelle Kwan era, the U.S. women have had an uncharacteristic run of years at worlds and Olympics with just two ladies singles skaters. Though defending Olympic champ Kim Yu-na of South Korea is back training, her status for Sochi remains uncertain, leaving the door ajar for new contenders.
Even with six clean triple jumps, Wagner says she'll need to add a triple-triple jump combination before worlds and skate as if Kim and Ando are the ones to beat. "It's my time to make a name for myself," she says. "I want all eyes on me."