For Ashley Wagner, making Grand Prix Final would mark big step toward Olympics

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There is an appropriate literary allusion for the position Ashley Wagner is in at Skate America this weekend.

This final event of the “regular season” in the Grand Prix figure skating series is taking place Friday through Sunday in Lake Placid, N.Y., near the heart of James Fenimore Cooper country.

And Wagner is, in effect, the last of the Mohicans, the only U.S. woman with a chance to be in the six-skater field for next month’s Grand Prix Final in Nagoya, Japan.

After having made four straight appearances in the Final, three resulting in medals (one silver, two bronze), Wagner did not qualify last season.  Getting back there would take on extra significance in this Olympic season.

Either she or Russia’s Polina Tsurskaya can earn the last available spot by winning Skate America.  Beyond that, the number of qualifying scenarios would multiply if two-time reigning world champion Evgenia Medvedeva is forced to withdraw from the Final with a broken metatarsal in her foot, an injury Medvedeva made public Tuesday on the Russian Skating Federation web site.

“It’s very important to be the only U.S. lady to make it to the Final going into nationals, knowing I have at least that kind of criteria checked off,” Wagner said last week.

“Beyond that, going to the Grand Prix Final is the difference between five weeks and three weeks (to prepare) before nationals.  It’s a blessing and a curse, but I think to kind of establish myself as essentially top six in the world at this point is huge for me going into this Olympic season and getting onto that Olympic team.”

Performance in the Grand Prix Final is one of the three Tier I criteria U.S. Figure Skating will use to choose the three women in singles on its 2018 Olympic team.  (The others are performance at January’s U.S. Championships and last season’s World Championships.  All will be weighted equally.)  Since no U.S. woman but Wagner could be at the Final, that important box would be marked for her.

It doesn’t matter that the other U.S. women competing this season have so far been second-rate (at best) on the 2017 Grand Prix circuit.  Wagner wants to do everything possible to make sure her Olympic selection this time is a no-brainer, thereby avoiding another controversy like the one created in 2014 by people unfamiliar with the selection process.

There was an uproar, including wild references to racism, when USFS picked Wagner, who was a struggling fourth at nationals, ahead of Mirai Nagasu, who was third, for the final spot on the 2014 team.  It was easier for many to express outrage than to read the rules, under which Wagner clearly was well ahead of Nagasu by every other criterion than the result at nationals.

A strong performance at Skate America would also be a big confidence boost for Wagner, who could have cost the U.S. its third 2018 Olympic women’s spot with a poor free skate at the 2017 worlds in Helsinki.  (She was bailed out by world meet rookie Karen Chen, who got fourth.)

The year before, a second-place free skate had made Wagner the only U.S. woman to win a singles medal (silver) at the worlds or Olympics since 2006.

"It will make it that much more important next year to justify why I should be on that (Olympic) team," Wagner said after finishing seventh in Helsinki.    

Wagner is realistic enough to know she is fortunate even to have a shot at the Final, given her subpar skating at her other Grand Prix event, Skate Canada, in late October.  She was seventh in the short program and fourth in the free skate but third overall, thanks to numerous mistakes by four of those ahead of her in the short program.

  Polina Tsurskaya, 16, of Russia had a third-place finish at her senior Grand Prix debut two weeks ago in Japan.  She is a contender for the Grand Prix Final.

Polina Tsurskaya, 16, of Russia had a third-place finish at her senior Grand Prix debut two weeks ago in Japan.  She is a contender for the Grand Prix Final.

“It’s great I did not put out my strongest performance and still ended up with a medal… but I am really focused more on what I need to do going into Skate America because I can’t rely on having won a medal with a mediocre skate,” Wagner said.  “I need to go to Skate America and be solid and get onto podium and really earn that spot.”

How mediocre was she at Skate Canada?  Wagner’s short program included negative grades of execution on two of her three jumping passes, with two jumps ruled under rotated, and she earned less than maximum level on two spins and a footwork sequence; it produced her lowest short program score since the 2015 Grand Prix Final.  Her free skate drew three under-rotation carats and four negative GOEs on seven jumping passes.

Wagner’s overall score, 183.94, has been topped by 30 women this season, including 13 Russians and three U.S. skaters.  Among them are six of the 11 women in the Skate America field:  Tsurskaya (210.19), Gabrielle Daleman of Canada (196.83), Bradie Tennell of the U.S. (196.70), Kaori Sakamoto of Japan (194), Satoko Miyahara of Japan (191.80) and Alena Leonova of Russia (190.95).

Comparing scores from different judging panels is rarely definitive, but Wagner’s score is nevertheless considerably lower than those of the other six.

One can only wonder if Wagner, 26, has lost some benefit of the doubt from judges because she is using the same free skate music, from Moulin Rouge, for the third time in four seasons and the same short program music, “Hip Hip Chin Chin” for the second time in three seasons.

Wagner has insisted this Moulin Rouge will look a lot different than last year’s once it is polished.

“At Skate Canada, you didn’t get to see any of the changes and the personality because I was just like doing a run through, basically,” she said.  “Going into Skate America, I put in time and effort to make sure I’m conditioned well enough, so little things that got lost at Skate Canada will be apparent.”

For Chen, the reigning U.S. champion, and Tennell, strong performances at Skate America are essential for different reasons.

Chen struggled at September's U.S. International Classic, finishing third, and came undone at Skate Canada, finishing seventh.  While her results in the months before last year’s nationals were equally poor, Chen cannot count on a stunning 11th-hour reversal again with the added pressure of trying to make the Olympic team.

Tennell, U.S. junior champion in 2015, is one of the outsiders with a chance to take one of the Olympic spots.  This is her only Grand Prix event of the season, and a strong showing could enhance her standing in the eyes of the USFS Olympic selection committee, checking the Tier II box for performances in other Grand Prix series competitions.

Wagner, a three-time U.S. champion, remains a near certainty to make the 2018 Olympic team, especially with Gracie Gold, top U.S. finisher at the 2014 Olympics, out for the season as she seeks stable psychological footing and the third 2014 U.S. Olympian in women's singles, Polina Edmunds, far from contending level after missing all last season with an injury.

Wagner has climbed out of valleys in her career several times, and no one should ever question her competitive will.  (Or, as she puts it on her Instagram bio, “The sass is real.”)

“I definitely have used the weeks since Skate Canada wisely,” she said.  “I can’t wait to show off the hard work.”

Check.