For U.S. champion Ashley Wagner, it's back to the future at skate nationals

Ashley Wagner seeks a fourth U.S. figure skating title this week.  (ISU photo)

Ashley Wagner seeks a fourth U.S. figure skating title this week.  (ISU photo)

Earlier this week, Ashley Wagner dredged through a virtual scrapbook to tweet a picture of the last time she had skated in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

It was at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, her first as a senior, when she was four months shy of her 17th birthday.  She finished third, as she had a year before in the junior event at both nationals and worlds.  This was an athlete on the way up.

That the sometimes jagged arc of her ensuing career has brought Wagner back to St. Paul this week to seek a fourth U.S. title at age 24 – a victory would make her, by a few months, the oldest women’s champion since Beatrix Loughran in 1926 – is a testament to her resoluteness.

Or, as she would put it, to her being stubborn and hard-headed.

“If you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to do everything to show that you’re wrong,” Wagner said.

That desire to overcome doubts and doubters has carried Wagner through the two years since her controversial but thoroughly justified selection to the 2014 U.S. Olympic team.

The rest of that season was about showing she belonged on the team.  Last season was about silencing the naysayers who felt she was too old to improve technically, which she did by mastering a triple lutz-triple toe jump combination and reclaiming the U.S. title lost to Gracie Gold in 2014.

This season, Wagner made the disconcerting discovery that she was having doubts as well.  That led her to come to terms with an existential angst over her skating future and her continued presence in the sport.

“I think it’s human to doubt your purpose in anything,” she said.

Gracie Gold (above), the 2014 national champion, has been Ashley Wagner's main U.S. rival since 2013. (ISU photo)

Gracie Gold (above), the 2014 national champion, has been Ashley Wagner's main U.S. rival since 2013. (ISU photo)

She remains, with Gold, undisputedly one of the top two women’s skaters in the United States.  Internationally, though, the top seems more distant every year, the gap enhanced by the seemingly endless supply of talented Russian teeny boppers who have emerged since 2010.

“Everywhere I look, there’s a newer, fresher, younger skater coming up that is technically sound and practically undefeatable,” Wagner said.  “It’s never-ending.”

No U.S. woman has won a world or Olympic medal since 2006.  Wagner has been close – fewer than four points from third in 2012, a little more than six points from the podium last season, when Gold was fewer than three away.  That difference could be as little as one badly botched jump.

But the effort to stay in contention had begun to seem Sisyphean to Wagner.

“I’m having to always work that much harder to stay relevant,” Wagner said.  “Twenty-four isn’t old, but at the same time, for this sport, it isn’t young.  It’s totally natural to start thinking how much longer do I want to do this for.”

There were moments late last fall, as Wagner followed a dismaying free skate at the NHK Trophy with a poor short program at the Grand Prix Final, when she felt ready to say, “Not a minute more.”

Support from her close friend, Adam Rippon, helped her find reasons to skate on.  She rallied at the Grand Prix Final to pull off a personal-best performance in the free skate and nearly make the podium.

“I’ve accepted that every year there is a new 14- or 15-year-old who is technically flawless,” Wagner said.  “That’s just the reality of the sport we are in now.

“I do every now and then say, `What am I doing here, this is never going to stop?’ But I love the sport, I love the challenge.

“After the Grand Prix Final, I kind of realized it’s not about questioning what I’m doing here.  It’s about focusing on the fact that I’m here, that I want to be here and that I need to skate like I want to be here.”

Three months before the 2014 Olympics, as we talked in a limousine taking her back from a Today Show appearance to a New Jersey hotel, Wagner already was beginning to wonder about how long she wanted to keep competing.

The events that followed, including a fourth at the 2014 nationals after two straight titles and a disappointing seventh at the Sochi Winter Games, made her determined to push herself forward.  The 2018 Olympics now are the likely terminus to a career in which Wagner already has won more U.S. women’s singles titles in the past 25 years than anyone but the redoubtable Michelle Kwan.

“I’m kind of at a point that is making me see the end is in sight,” Wagner said.  “It makes me think about what I do with the small amount of time I have left.  It creates a whole different type of her pressure.”

Wagner’s mother, Melissa, once told me, “Ashley throws her own carrot out there.”  The current one is no small potatoes.

 “I want that world title,” Ashley said.  “That’s a tall order, by far, (but) if I go out there and put out a solid performance technically, it’s not entirely out of the question.”

It’s also an answer that leaves no doubt about why she has returned to St. Paul.