Hungry for the Title: U.S. Figure Skating National Championships


“It’s a unique type of pressure because I think that any time you’re going for a repeat title, the weight on your shoulders is enormous.”

Ashley Wagner. Photo courtesy of U.S. Figure Skating

Ashley Wagner. Photo courtesy of U.S. Figure Skating

So says current reigning women’s U.S. figure skating national champion, Ashley Wagner. Held annually since 1914, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships is the nation’s most prestigious figure skating event each year. With three national titles under her belt, when the championships come to St. Paul, Wagner will be going for gold a fourth time. Build in the added pressure that she admits she had an “iffy” 2014, unable to repeat her title that year, and it appears the mental game might be her undoing.

“I did not claim my title again, so this would be my first year back to repeat my title. So there’s just a lot of pressure that comes with it. And to have four titles would be such an amazing accomplishment and there’s so much additional added pressure from myself because it’s something I want for myself. The best thing you can really do for yourself is forget about everything that’s happened in the past and focus on the moment and the ice at that time.”

Being in the right head space is crucial for skaters, as Wagner exemplified at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona in December. Wagner finished fourth at the Grand Prix Final, but it was almost a win in her books considering from how far back she’d come.

After a wretched short program, she had a stellar performance in the long program thanks to an inspiring conversation with training partner Adam Rippon, who was back in Los Angeles. The talk, and the Barcelona result, have boosted her confidence for her title defense at the U.S. Championships this month and, she hopes, the World Championships in Boston in March.

“I was saying, `Maybe this isn’t my place any more, maybe this isn’t what I should be doing,”’ Wagner says. ”And he sat me down and said, ‘Maybe you should start listening to all these tweets that you send out, all these Instagram posts that say that you just love the sport, and maybe you should just skate because you love it, not think about the results, and the rest will follow.”’

For Wagner, who is considered a “veteran” at age 24 and has been skating for nearly 20 years, she admits that she has just a fraction of time left in the sport. “It’s getting to the point where I have to start thinking about what’s next. Skating has been a huge part of my life and has defined who I am for so long, so I have to start thinking about what’s next and I don’t like to.

“I had a couple bad skates [this year] and I got to thinking is this what I want, have I done everything I wanted to do? I went to every competition so solid, but then, under pressure, nothing seemed to be coming together. You start to think about where is this coming from? Is this just because I’m tired or am I over-thinking and over-planning? It seems every time I turn my head I see a new skater who is younger and I’m constantly being challenged by something new. So when you’re up against that, it’s easy to wonder when is thing going to be enough for me?”

But thanks to Adam Rippon, who was featured in a previous issue of Lavender magazine, Wagner was able to muster up the mental game to finish strong. “To have a friendship like the one I have with Adam, I am so incredibly lucky,” she says. “To have someone who understands exactly what you’re going through, who is in the exact same shoes, who has the same doubts, feelings, struggles…it gives some clarity. Your point of view of what’s going on can be small-minded, so when you get someone else who gets what’s going on and can give a wider perspective, he was able to snap my head back on and get me back in the competitive mindset.”

With the U.S. Championships mere weeks away, the senior ladies free skate is considered a must-see event for Wagner and everyone else. “That’s when we’re all going for the titles and the claws come out.”

Indeed, the ladies competition is a highlight of the U.S. Championships with an impressive list of past champions including Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan, Tara Lipinski, and Michelle Kwan among the almost 100 year history of the event. The championship ladies free skate will crown the coveted title of U.S. ladies champion, an honor Ashley Wagner hopes to defend after her victory last year. If Wagner succeeds, she will become a four-time U.S. champion. Others to watch: Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds, Courtney Hicks, Karen Chen, and Mirai Nagasu.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Figure Skating

Photo courtesy of U.S. Figure Skating

Wagner admits she never actually got to see in person too many skating events growing up, due to her “military child” upbringing and moving around a lot, but she grew up watching televised skating.

“I grew up watching the greats,” Wagner says, citing Tara Lipinski and Kristi Yamaguchi. “So these women were just mesmerizing to me. They had such command over the ice. Back then skating was huge in the States, so to be able to grow up and see what skating did for these athletes is definitely inspiring and pushed me to get to this level in my own career.”

While many enjoy the beauty and grace that is the women’s competition, the men also know how to put on a show. Dick Button, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano, Todd Eldredge, and Evan Lysacek are just some of the historic names that have been crowned U.S. champion in this event. The history is undeniable and the strength of field makes this one of the toughest events to win annually. Technique, concentration, and the ability to perform under pressure are the key requirements to claim victory in the men’s event. As strength is showcased and quadruple jumps are attempted, the men will compete over two days in the short program and a free skate, similar to the ladies competition.

Championship pairs has the best of both worlds, and then some. The pairs event combines the athleticism of singles skating with the precision of ice dancing, mixed with the thrilling acrobatics of overhead lifts and throws. Each movement is performed in unison, demonstrating exact timing and line between partners.

Whereas, if you like Dancing with the Stars, the ice dancing event is for you. Unlike pairs skating, ice dancing is based on different aspects of dance, including rhythm, interpretation of the music, and precise steps. Its beauty lies in its limitless creativity, choreography and theatrical and innovative aspects. Ice dancing is the only discipline that permits vocal music and costumes that are traditionally more elaborate in order to enhance the performance.

Approximately 400 figure skaters from all over the United States will compete in the senior, junior, novice, intermediate, and juvenile levels for 20 national titles awarded in ladies’ singles, men’s singles, pairs, and dance.

But what everyone is talking about going into the 2016 championships is the rivalry between Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner, something that Wagner is ready for. “I think the drama is going to ensure it’s an event to watch,” she says. “I’m so excited to have finished the Grand Prix on a high note; I’m heading into nationals with a confidence boost. So I think nationals for me just needs to be a solid event, hopefully leading into Worlds in Boston. That’s the main goal. I’m there for my fourth title; I’m hungry.”

Approximately 100,000 spectators are expected to attend the 2016 championships, many of whom will travel from outside the Saint Paul area. And for many young skaters, seeing someone like Wagner perform on the ice could be just the inspiration they need to chase their own Olympic dreams. After all, it was seeing Tara Lipinski that did it for Wagner. It’s a reality that the skater hasn’t quite grappled with yet.

“I can’t even imagine I do that for other people,” she says. “But the idea that there is some kid out there watching my skating and saying they want to be able to do that…it’s an incredible feeling and that reminds me that I need to have my act together. We need more people to love this sport and be crazy for it.”

Getting that younger demographic interested in skating is crucial for the sport since, as Wagner admits, athletes tend to age out of competitive skating sooner rather than later. In the world of figure skating, “veteran” is a frightening word. It means you’re pushing retirement because you’re all the way into your twenties.

Skating-career years are kind of like dog years, and Wagner is apt to talk about age in a way baffling to laypeople. She’ll begin a sentence with “I may be 24, but…” ending in head-shaking disbelief with a clause about how she’s still learning. Or else she’ll self-deprecate by referring to herself as a 33-year-old trapped in a 23-year-old’s body.

“I might just have one more Olympics in me, and then who knows?” Wagner says. “There are so many roads that I could end up going down. I think when I’m ready to be done with skating, I’ll know in my heart. When 2018 rolls around and I want to keep competing, then I’ll see, but for now it’s up in the air.”

Although, she might just be getting better with age. At last year’s nationals, Wagner got some vindication with a record-breaking performance, scoring 221.02. In her long program, she landed seven triple jumps, including two in combination. Age might be nothing but a number for Wagner.

Off the ice, Wagner is far and away the most quotable figure skater of her generation, and, most likely, of any other. She was the only athlete at the 2014 Olympic Games from any country and any sport to consistently speak out against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s human rights record. Even now, she is actively showing support for the GLBT community, saying, “I think that it is incredible that Lavender magazine is partaking in this and I think it’s a huge thing for U.S. Figure Skating to give its blessing and show some progress in this sport.”

Her fearlessness off the ice, her willingness to say what she thinks at all times, has long been noted by those who report on the sport. And now, with her record-breaking nationals turnout last year and her ability to turn things around after a poor short program throughout this past season, it appears she has found a fearlessness on the ice to match it.

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