Ashley Wagner douses U.S. medal drought by uncorking her well-aged experience

BOSTON - It looked as if Gracie Gold was on the verge of ending the U.S. ladies' world championships medal drought with a whimper.

And then Ashley Wagner did it with a bang at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships, using the intense emotion of her competitive nature to create fireworks in a free skate that rocked a roaring sellout crowd at TD Garden and brought her a silver medal.

It was the first world medal for a U.S. ladies competitor since 2006, when Kimmie Meissner won gold and Sasha Cohen took bronze. The U.S. men have been without a medal since 2009.

Wagner is a 24-year-old who keeps joking about how she is an old lady in the sport. After all, the young woman who beat her with a subtly stirring and record-breaking free skate, Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia, is only 16, and the bronze medalist, Anna Pogorilaya of Russia, just 18.

What Wagner brings at her seemingly advanced age is a performance maturity and an unflagging desire to overcome the many ups and downs of a career that included a worlds debut way back in 2008. The three-time U.S. champion had called herself the "almost" girl, but now that sobriquet can be dispensed with forever.

"I'm like a fine wine, getting better with age -- or at least that's what I like to tell myself," Wagner said. "I'm not old, I'm experienced."

Wagner looked at Medvedeva, sitting next to her during the medalists' press conference, and marveled at what she had seen the Russian do in practices, the skills that allowed her to break Yu-Na Kim's six-year-old world record in the free skate by 0.04 with a score of 150.10 Saturday night.

"I see her doing run-throughs with a triple at the end of every combination and I think, 'Oh, to be 16,'" Wagner said. "Then I remember, I couldn't do that at 16."

What she could do, six weeks before her 25th birthday, was present a program to music from the film Moulin Rouge! with an elan and artistic confidence that the judges rewarded with the highest program components scores of the field. For Wagner, those scores would be the difference between fifth and second place and were enough to overcome the three mistakes (two under-rotations, one edge call) she was dinged for on jumps.

"The fact I won a silver medal because of something I did and not because of something everyone else didn't do is so sweet," Wagner said. 

Medvedeva had a commanding margin of victory, 223.86 to 215.39. Pogorilaya scored 213.69. Gold was fourth (211.29) by 0.68 over Japan's Satoko Miyahara.

It left Gold third before Wagner took the ice as the final skater in the competition.

Truth be told, the 20-year-old Gold had melted down after taking a nearly three-point lead into the free skate. And she was quick to admit it.

"It was a really unfortunate and sad experience," Gold said. "I feel really ashamed of how I skated, and I want to apologize to my country and to the crowd here -- there's really no excuse for it.

"It just shows that I'm not up there with the rest of the world, but maybe in the future I can be a better skater. I still have hopes for the 2018 Olympics, but we'll have to step back and re-evaluate what's realistic for my future skating."

The last time she skated at this venue, Wagner was almost forced to excuse herself for being selected to the 2014 U.S. Olympic team after a dismaying fourth at the U.S. championships. The rules in place clearly justified the decision to send her to Sochi, but there was a public outcry over the exclusion of third-place Mirai Nagasu (who took 10thhere).

Wagner left no doubt that this world silver medal should be hers. On a night when four of the other five skaters who went before her in the final group turned in performances ranging from very good to great to exceptional, Wagner simply outdid all but the untouchable Medvedeva.

"I have had so many people for so many parts of my career say that, 'This has been given to me; I don't deserve this,''' said Wagner, who finished just third at the 2016 U.S. Championships. "I have so many people who doubt why I am still here and why people still support me.

"I earned this silver medal. I knew there had been a bunch of phenomenal skates before me. I put that out of my mind and went out there and did what I needed to do."

It wasn't easy. Wagner had heard the crowd's anguished reaction to Gold's fall and the muted reaction when Gold finished. Her coach, Rafael Arutunian, told her before she got on the ice to seize the opportunity in front of her.

"I had a moment of panic because I knew something had happened in Gracie's performance," Wagner said. "I realized there was an opening and maybe I can get onto this podium. Then I realized freaking out over maybe getting onto a podium wasn't going to do anything for me."

Wagner had finished fifth, seventh, fifth, fourth and 16th at her previous five world championships. She made her first appearance at this competition only two years after the medal drought began, so it meant more to her to be the skater who ended it.

"To go out there against such a strong field and get this medal, I'm very proud of myself and very glad I could accomplish this for U.S. figure skating," she said.

She already could take pride in having been outspoken on important subjects, like gay rights in Russia, that few of her 2014 Olympic teammates were willing to touch. She is unafraid to be critical of seeming unfairness in judging (remember that expression on her face after seeing her scores in Sochi?). She is relentlessly self-critical. She is funny, candid, dauntless.

And a world silver medalist.

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)