Q&A: Olympic Figure Skater Ashley Wagner is Not Done Yet

At 26-years-old, Ashley Wagner is the oldest Olympic U.S. figure skater since 1928. But the army brat is confident she can get the job done in PyeongChang.
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A military brat since birth, Ashley Wagner often felt a sense of displacement. The 26-year-old moved nine times in 10 years, following her father, Lieutenant Colonel Eric Wagner. The one constant in Ashley's life: figure skating. Wagner's parents were quickly aware of their daughter's talents, and often drove her over an hour to reach a rink. In 2002, at just 11 years old, Wagner qualified for the U.S. Junior Figure Skating Championships, the national championships for figure skaters at the juvenile and intermediate levels.

Since then, Wagner has become a three-time U.S. national champion (2012, 2013 and 2015), a winner of five Grand Prix events (2012 and 2016 Skate America; 2012 and 2013 Trophée Eric Bompard; 2015 Skate Canada) and a 2016 World silver medalist. At the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Wagner skated her way to a bronze medal in the team event.

In a sport dominated by teenagers, Wagner's veteran presence remains prevalent. Her experience and composure have allowed for continued success within the ever-changing sport.

SI caught up with Wagner to chat about her journey to figure skating superstardom, her future plans and the 2018 Olympics.

(Editor's Note: The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed).

Nihal Kolur: Let's start at the beginning. How did you originally get involved in figure skating?

Ashley Wagner: Well I'm an army brat, so I'm from all over. I got into the sport because we were stationed in Eagle River, Alaska, which is right outside of Anchorage. My dad was on tour somewhere when I was five and my mom just wanted me to get out of the house. So she gave me the choice of ballet or figure skating, and I choose figure skating. And the rest is ancient history.

NK: Why'd you choose figure skating?

AW: I was a tomboy when I was younger so ironically, figure skating was less girly than ballet. And at school, they would hose down the parking lot and make a rink so kids could skate at recess, which I loved.

NK: Did moving around help you? Or was it really hard as a young child?

AW: I actually think that might be the reason my career has lasted so long, because I moved around so much. My parents always made sure I could skate. So it was that one familiar thing I had. I was always the new kid, always had to get used to new surroundings. But rinks are rinks wherever you go. So it's kind of part of my identity because it has always been there in my life.

NK: Did you always know you wanted to make a career out of figure skating?

AW: I've been skating since I was 5 so there's never really been any other option in my life. I think that I fell in love with it as soon as I got on the ice. I never doubted whether I wanted to do it. It was who I was and what I did.

NK: What exactly appealed to you about the sport?

AW: I love the flow on the ice, but I also love performing. I love making a crowd feel something and kind of changing the energy in the room, making everyone look at you and telling a story.

NK: Was there a moment when you realized you could make the Olympics? Or did you always have that dream?

AW: I watched Tara Lipinski win gold at the 1998 Olympics when I was 6 years old, so that was when I decided I wanted to go to the Olympics. But it wasn't a real thing yet, you know I was so young. I don't think it became a reality until I was 15 or 16 when I competed my first year on the senior circuit against past Olympians. That was when I was like, 'Ok, this is the real deal, I'm in this.' 

NK: So at that point, did you ramp up your training?

AW: Definitely. And now, my training has changed a lot because I'm 26. I can't do some of the stuff the younger people can. But I spend a lot of the time on the ice and I realized I need to be more efficient with my time. I spend four hours on the ice a day and then train each program individually for about an hour each. And then I head to the gym and I do a lot of cardio work as well as band resistance and things like that.

NK: Are you the exception or the norm? Do most figure skaters start as young as you did?

AW: Actually most of them start earlier. Most figure skaters start really young, but the difference between me and most other skaters is that many of them are at the peak of their career at 18 to 20 years old, and then they retire. I'm 26 now and I'm going to be the oldest U.S. figure skater since 1928. I think my longevity in the sport is rare, but it's because I've been smart and I've paced myself throughout the years. 

NK: Speaking about the Olympics for a little bit, what was that moment like when you first qualified for the Olympics?

AW: It was a lifelong dream. It was such an honor. It was exhausting, it was exhilarating, it was overwhelming. But at the end of the day it just kind of confirmed all those years of hard work and why I'm doing what I'm doing.

NK: A lot of athletes complain about the pressure at the Olympics. Did you feel an extra sense of pressure when you qualified?

AW: I think at the end of the day, you just kind of have to realize that it's just like any competition, it's just a competition on steroids. If you make it any bigger than it already is you're going to crumble under the pressure. So for me I tried to make it like every other day and I tried to enjoy the experience. And that got me on the podium. The time I actually felt the most pressure was when I was going into the 2016 World Championships. I was injured and the championships were on U.S. soil, and the ladies had a medal drought for 10 years. I was sitting in fourth place, but I skated last so I knew the door was open for me to get a medal. So I went out and used that pressure to kind of fuel me to a silver medal. I've actually been working with Bridgestone lately, focusing on my clutch performance for a campaign of theirs, and that was mine.

(L-R) Bronze medalists Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner and Jeremy Abbott of the United States celebrate during the medal ceremony for the Team Figure Skating Overall on day 3 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Medals Plaza in the Olympic Park on February 10, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

NK: I think I would have cracked [laughs]. What about when you got to the Olympics, tell me a little bit about being in the Olympic Village.

AW: It was really cool because figure skating is a very sport specific kind of environment, so you don't meet many athletes from other sports. At the Village, you meet most of the other athletes at the cafeteria, which has pretty much anything you could ever want. And then staying in the dorms, we all have roommates, it was great. The thing I was most excited about was that we had these lanyards with Coke bottles on them and you could go up to any vending machine and get any drink you wanted. So that was the coolest thing for me [laughs].

NK: I know you've suffered a lot of injuries throughout your career, and now that you're on the older side of the sport, what do you see your future like?

AW: I've suffered from about five concussions and in 2010, leading up to qualifying from the Games, I'm suffering from body tremors and heart palpitations and extreme memory issues and nobody could really explain what was going on, which was terrifying. It turned out that the C2 vertebrae in my spine was pressing into my spinal cord and basically causing my spine to short circuit. So, I mean, that was so scary to have doctors not have any clue what was going on. I almost stopped worrying about skating and just wanted to be better. But I never lost motivation. The Olympics were a goal my entire life and I never doubted that. Now that I'm a bit older, I think my experience and the fact that I know what to expect and how to control myself will help me in PyeongChang.