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Wagner shakes things up ahead of Sochi

1/23/2014
Ashley Wagner finished fourth overall at U.S. nationals earlier this month. AP Photo/Steven Senne

Ashley Wagner went through four different dresses this season trying to get her free-skate program to fit.

It never really worked. Finally, after a disastrous outing at the U.S. national championships that briefly put her Olympic team selection in doubt, Wagner convinced coach Rafael Arutunian to let her scrap the long program in favor of a hybrid. She will compete with last year's Samson and Delilah music, choreography that is a mix of old, new and borrowed from this season's "Romeo and Juliet," and, of course, a new dress.

The decision seemed cataclysmic -- Wagner called it "insane" -- on the eve of the Winter Games, but as she told reporters on a conference call Thursday, "I don't think anyone is more prepared for such a big change so close to the Olympics than I am."

In fact, it has been on her mind for months, but there was so much other transition going on in her life that she simply tried to strong-arm her issues and live with a free skate that didn't suit her.

In the space of a few months, Wagner dealt with the finality of her parents' divorce, changed choreographers, brokered a new coaching arrangement when John Nicks stopped traveling and had her jump technique completely deconstructed and rebuilt by new primary coach Arutunian.

I sat down with her in December after she performed in an ice show in New Jersey. Just a few days had elapsed since the Grand Prix final in Japan at which Wagner survived a fall on her triple Lutz jump and other flaws in the free skate to win the bronze medal.

At that point, Wagner sounded resolute about sticking with "Romeo and Juliet" but was still struggling with making her character "bigger than the music" -- selections from the complex, occasionally thundering and somewhat dark version by Sergei Prokofiev.

"The first couple months I had this program, I was afraid that I had bitten off more than I could chew," she told me. "It's very easy to make it look like it's overpowering me. If you try and play the story of Juliet as this young, innocent, soft girl who's falling in love, it doesn't go with that big piece of music.

"Up until Skate America, I was very lost with that character. I never want to be the victim. I was portraying this weak person. One thing my Army dad always said was, 'Don't be weak.'"

Wagner hashed out her problems with her best friend and training partner Adam Rippon and tried to mine what she could to make the performance more comfortable.

"[Juliet] is actually a very strong character because she's going against what everyone is telling her to do, and she will do anything and everything to get what she wants in the end," Wagner said. "We had to rework the program mentally, emotionally, physically so that this character could become something that matched up with the music more.

"It was a risk to use this. Now, I feel like I'm starting to get this under control."

Fast forward a month. When Wagner spoke to reporters at the national championships in Boston shortly after the Olympic team had been announced -- operating on very little sleep and a lot of mixed emotions -- she dropped some clues about her intentions.

Wagner was prepared to answer the central question: How could she pull her free skate together under the Olympic microscope when her legs had gone numb at nationals? That mental pressure would be different, she said. She had made it to the highest plateau in her sport. Now, she could just compete and perform.

As for the nitty gritty: "I need the triple-triple [combination jump] in the program, no doubt," she said in Boston. "I need to improve my spin quality, and I need to find a way to make that long program something I'm head over heels in love with."

Orange County Register writer Scott Reid piped up: "How do you feel about it now?"

Wagner smiled a tad wanly. "Right now, I'm very ambivalent," she said, with a small laugh. "There is a lot to be discussed with Raf, and we're going to end up making the best decision for the small amount of the time we have going into the Olympics. I need to change things around for myself."

Reid followed up: Would the changes amount to nickel-and-dime stuff?

"Nickels and dimes, twenties and hundreds," Wagner said. "I fully trust that Raf will lead me down the right path."

As it turned out, Wagner was ready to pull out some very large-denomination bills.