Ashley Wagner’s Playbook of Success

By Lynn Rutherford

Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Feisty and resilient she is, but even Ashley Wagner has her dark moments. Some of the bleakest came last season, when a devastating break-up with a boyfriend and insecurity about her competitive future threatened to derail her skating.

“I think I was fighting myself because I could retire at any day, any point,” she said. “I’ve had an illustrious career, I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished, so it was kind of hard to (answer), ‘Why am I still doing this?’ All of these girls are getting so much better. Am I just clinging to something?”

So the 26-year-old skater did what she’s been doing for a decade: Dug deep. Analyzed her prospects. Made some changes. And rediscovered her love of skating, in time to finish a close second at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and help the U.S. gain three ladies’ spots for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games.

“I did tough it out, because I’m a tough cookie,” she said. “And as soon as I finished the season, it felt like there was this huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I was finally working toward the Olympics. I was going in a direction.”

Wagner’s training partner and close friend Adam Rippon never doubted she would stay the course.

“What makes Ashley so special is she is very level-headed,” Rippon said. “She doesn’t take herself too seriously, but I think often, when a lot of people would think they could not get the job done, she doesn’t doubt herself. I see that especially when she goes to competitions, and there are always those ups and downs in practices. She’s a fighter, and that’s what I try to emulate.”

There is a lot young athletes — and even the not-so-young — can learn from Wagner’s long senior career: eight top-three finishes at the U.S. Championships, three U.S. titles and seven trips to the World Figure Skating Championships, where she rose from 16th in 2008 to win a silver medal in 2016. Here’s how she has been able to go the distance:

Rebrand yourself — and be bold about it.

After narrowly missing the 2010 Vancouver Olympic team and slipping to sixth place at the 2011 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Wagner decided the 2011-12 season would be her breakout year. By that time, two U.S. bronze medals and a few other near-misses had her calling herself the “Almost Girl.”

At a Christmas show in Philadelphia a few weeks before the 2012 U.S. Championships, she famously declared, “This U.S. title is mine to lose” — and then went out and won it.

Be independent, but ask for help when you need it.

In June 2011, at age 20, Wagner relocated from her Wilmington, Delaware, training site and family home in Annapolis, Maryland, to train in Southern California. She lived and ate inexpensively and worked part-time in a jeans store until Grand Prix prize money started coming in.

In the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Games, Wagner admitted overloading her schedule with media and sponsor commitments. Rest, recuperation and smart eating sometimes took a backseat. Now, as she prepares for (hopefully) her second Olympics, she’s turning to her mother, retired teacher Melissa James, to keep things on track day to day.

“Every second of my day is planned out, I have my mom helping me with my scheduling,” Wagner said. “She’s helping me plan my meals so all I have to do is go to the grocery store and cook what she has on the schedule. So for the first time, I’m letting people help me do everything, and then I’m making the most of my time on the ice and being smart.

“I’ve learned over the years, because I’ve gone into seasons in complete chaos and felt like I was always 10 steps behind. And so this year, I had everything planned out in January.”

For her full playbook, read the November issue of SKATING magazine.