When U.S. figure skaters Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold nailed their programs at the World Figure Skating Championships in London, Ontario last month, the most elated person on the planet was sitting in front of her computer, crunching the numbers, biting her fingernails and hanging on their every result. When the final numbers flashed, Agnes Zawadzki might as well have been doing Salchows and Axels in her living room.
Because Wagner's and Gold's places added up to 13 or less, the U.S. ladies earned a third berth at the Sochi Olympics next February. Who knows what that will mean for skaters such as Christina Gao, Mirai Nagasu, Courtney Hicks and Alissa Csizny, each of whom could contend for a top place at the U.S. Nationals in Boston next January. But for Zawadzki, the 18-year-old third place finisher at the year's Nationals, the results were "perfect, perfect" news.
"I texted Ashley right afterwards," Zawadzki says. "Then I tweeted about it. I was thrilled."
Here's the surprising footnote: Zawadzki doesn't have a television set. Zawadski uses a modern approach to technology with social media that didn't exist back when U.S. singles skaters could count on having the maximum number of entries at all world and Olympic competitions. Today's group is fond of saying "back in the Michelle Kwan era," which only gives the impression of a by-gone age that dates back more than its actual decade. Now the team is trying to rebuild and recover its place of preeminence in singles skating. "We want to uphold the tradition," Zawadzki says. Or perhaps start a new one.
In either case, Zawadzki's story begins in the old country. Her parents came to the States from their native, Gdansk, Poland when Agnes, mother, Jolanta, was pregnant with her. The parents divorced when Agnes was an infant and Jolanta worked double shifts as a nanny and housekeeper to pay bills. (Agnes' father died when she was ten.) Once Agnes began graduating from the mommy-and-me introductory skating classes in the Chicago area, the expenses included the skating lessons that can run roughly $60,000 a year at the advanced levels for coaching, choreography, ice time and outfits.
"I instantly fell in love with skating," she recalls. "I couldn't wait to get back on the ice and I was always asking about doing more... During the Michelle Kwan era, it was on every weekend, so you could watch it and see how good it could be. I admit I had a few big dreams. What did I know, but I thought, 'that could be me someday.'"
Forget the stereotype of skating being a sport for the privileged; Zawadzki's rise required a full team effort.
"We didn't go on family vacations like some other kids," she says. "Everything was tight for my family. They've given up so much to make support my dreams." As she advanced and expenses increased, so did donations and support from her federation. "My grandfather was really the skating mom. He drove me to the rink and sat around waiting for me to finish."
Zawadzki trained for eight years under David Santee, a world silver medalist in 1981, but in 2008, the Zawadzki family, including Agnes' grandparents, moved to Colorado so she could train with Tom Zakrajsek, a strong technical coach who sharpened her skills. "I thought Tom really helped me progress technically," she says. "He upgraded my standards."
But even with Zakrajsek, something was missing. Along the way, Zawadzki began to struggle with producing secure programs under the bright lights of an arena. She could hit jumps in practice and then miss them when she really needed them. "I'd get into these mental ruts," she says. "I can't always stay in the present; I tend to go into the future: 'okay, I missed that jump, so now what does that do to the rest of the program?'"
The Olympic prospect was at a crossroads. "It stopped being fun," says Zawadzki, who began working with a performance coach. "I was putting way too much pressure on myself and I thought about giving up skating." So two years ago, she returned to skate with Santee and Christy Krall was also working with Canada's Patrick Chan, the three-time world champion. "Christy had experience producing a champion skater," says Zawadzki. "She'd keep people in line, but the atmosphere was still more laid back. It was better for me. I didn't see the point of training one way and competing another."
To see Zawadzki perform and emote, you would not expect her to be averse to the spotlight. At Cheyenne Mountain High school near the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Zawadzki did her best to keep her burgeoning career as quiet as possible.
"It sounds funny," she says, "but I'm really shy. Away from the ice I don't want to be a big deal." It's different around friends. "I laugh a lot," she says. "I mean, fits of laughter, like I can't stop once I start." Give her 20 minutes of Saturday Night Live or Chelsea Handler, she says, and all hope of concentration is lost until the giggles exhaust themselves.
Zawadzki knows how good she can be. At the U.S. Nationals in 2012, she finished first in the short program, before struggling with her free skate. "I went on auto-pilot in the short, not thinking about anything," she says. "I was definitely not expecting to be first at that point. The long is a bit of a mind game for me. There are a lot of things to think about other than the very next jump."
And there is much to think about for what is the most important season of her career to date. She has decided to keep her existing short program, choreographer by David Wilson and skated to music from Sex in the City. Her long program will have a decidedly different look, a tango, though she won't reveal more details yet. The ambitious music of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue will be gone. She will bring back the Axel-toe loop combination jump that she abandoned last year in favor of an easier toe-toe combination. She'll add a triple loop, which she considers perhaps her weakest jump, and she may add a tricky Lutz-toe combo, since her triple Lutz is superb.
"Nationals will be here before I know it," she says. "I need to ready soon." Zawadzki is trying to be a quick study. She is taking psychology classes at UC-Colorado Springs, hoping to put her mind in synch with her legs. An Olympic berth is within reach, especially because three's a good crowd.