News & Politics

Is She the One?

American women have medaled in figure skating at every Olympics since 1976. Will Ashley Wagner stand on the podium this year?

Dad’s latest Army posting was near Anchorage, and Alaska’s winter had given Mom and the two kids a case of cabin fever. Mom wanted to sign up the older child, five-year-old Ashley, for ballet or skating lessons. Choose, she told her daughter.

The little girl knew skating was so popular in Alaska that parking lots were hosed down for makeshift rinks. And she liked that you could go fast on skates.

So began an odyssey that has Ashley Wagner, now 18, pointed toward the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. A graduate of Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria, Wagner is one of America’s top skaters and looks to be peaking on the eve of February’s Winter Games.

Two years ago, at 16, Wagner burst onto the skating scene with a bronze medal at the national championships. Last fall—amid a year in which she skated in Bulgaria, Japan, and Russia—she was the only American to qualify for the final of a prestigious international circuit, finishing fourth.

Wagner was ten when her family settled in Alexandria in 2001. An Army brat born in Germany, she had moved nine times by then. Working with Shirley Hughes, a coach at the Fairfax County ice rink near her home, Wagner got serious about her training and at 13 competed internationally, in Canada, for the first time.

After her breakout at the national championships in 2008, she parted ways with Hughes—“Shirley had taught me everything she knew,” Wagner says—and signed on with Priscilla Hill, former coach for 2006 Olympian and three-time national champion Johnny Weir. For a short time, Wagner’s mother, Melissa, and younger brother, Austin, moved with her to Wilmington, Delaware, where Hill is based. Wagner’s father—retired from the Army and working for Honeywell—stayed in Virginia.

Her family has since returned, and Wagner now lives with Hill in the coach’s apartment. She spends three hours a day on the ice and another couple of hours in Pilates, dance lessons, and a strength program.

Heading into the national championships, which conclude January 24, Wagner is the third-highest-ranked American in the world, just behind 17-year-old sensation Rachael Flatt and 2009 US champion Alissa Czisny. To win one of the two slots on the US Olympic team, she also may have to outskate Sasha Cohen, who stepped away after her 2006 Olympic silver-medal performance but is flirting with a comeback.

Known for her power and jumps, Wagner has been working to add polish to her routines. She wants smoother transitions and faster spins along with a sense of effortless elegance.

“Our job is to make something really hard seem easy,” she says. “We’re trying to perfect perfection.”