U.S. team an ensemble cast
BOSTON -- It was karma Ashley Wagner couldn't have foreseen when she and Gracie Gold gutted it out at world championships last year, logging fifth- and sixth-place finishes that ensured three women would represent the United States in Sochi.
Wagner fully intended to defend the national title she had won twice before, and channel that momentum into a bid for the Olympic podium. But figure skating is what happens while you're making other plans.
"Turns out I got the third spot for myself in this case," an exhausted Wagner said Sunday, an hour after learning she'd been selected via text -- a message she digested alone in the stands, waiting to see her friend Adam Rippon practice. She found a quiet place and cried.
Now the question quickly pivots to what Wagner will be able to make of the chance granted by the U.S. Figure Skating brain trust, which decided to bank on her recent past rather than her lost weekend in Boston.
She is part of a 15-member Sochi-bound U.S. figure skating team that is an ensemble cast with only one proven star at the highest level: the ice dancing supernova of Meryl Davis and Charlie White. Davis and White are gold-medal favorites with the duo who edged them for the honor four years ago, Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Uncertainty looms after that.
The team includes a number of athletes with solid but not spectacular international credentials. It also includes a 15-year-old, Polina Edmunds, who will make her senior-level international debut at the Winter Games.
Two other skaters in the group have previous Olympic experience -- men's champion Jeremy Abbott, ninth in 2010, and ice dancer Evan Bates, who finished 11th four years ago with former partner Emily Samuelson. Bates will travel with Madison Chock this time thanks to their second-place finish.
Leading up to the national championships, Wagner was rightly part of the Olympic podium conversation, based on consistent international results and top-three Grand Prix final finishes in consecutive years. She acknowledged she would have to be perfect to get there.
At the 2013 worlds last March, Wagner came across as the assertive, goal-oriented veteran, while Gold -- still too awestruck by reigning Olympic champion Yu-Na Kim of South Korea to ask for an autograph -- painted a possible trip to the Sochi Games as more of a learning experience than a career maker.
Those roles have shifted somewhat. The 18-year-old Gold still sees the far horizon, but her expectations of herself have necessarily ratcheted up after she survived tumult and transition this season to win the national championship in convincing fashion.
"The Olympics, you can't really prepare for them, is what I've heard," Gold said. "It's just so big and just so much that you really just kind of have to ride the wave. If you try to go against it, I think you'll be drowned.
"Since worlds, each competition, I've gotten a little more confident. It's not going to be just for experience. I really want to give it the best go that I have. I can't exactly say 'podium' -- of course, that's what everybody is going for. I'm going there to compete, just like I came here not to just make the team, but I came to this national championships to win, that's what I was working for. The closer we get to Sochi, I want to be going for a medal. I think that's a realistic goal."
With two rough outings four years apart at the U.S. championships leading to an Olympics -- i.e., the most important events of her life -- it's legitimate to ask whether Wagner will be able to keep her act together on the biggest stage of all. She didn't equivocate.
"Nationals is a different beast, it's a different type of pressure," she said. "This pressure obviously was overwhelming to me, and I couldn't skate the way I'd hoped to get on the Olympic team. I'm ready to go home and train efficiently to make sure that when I show up in Sochi, it's the Ashley Wagner you guys have been watching the last couple of years."
Abbott was more noncommittal, preoccupied with the emotions stirred by his farewell to the national scene -- a distraction that almost made him disastrously late to take the ice for his own free skate. He said he knows what he's in for this time but professed no specific goals.
"Four years ago, everything was just about being on the team," he said. "Once that happened, it was just like jumping into an abyss. We had no idea what to expect, how to go about training. [Since] the 2012 season, I have put a lot of work into my training and the structure. It's been paying off very slow and steady. I had a good week here, and I have a lot of energy left."
What the U.S. team doesn't offer in résumé, it does in intrigue. Edmunds appears completely unfazed at the prospect of dining at the adult table in Valhalla, and she has the technical prowess to rack up some points, especially in the short program. And after four years of declarations that no elite man could be competitive without a quadruple jump, enter Jason Brown, the ebullient 19-year-old from suburban Chicago whose electrifying and quadless free skate to an Irish beat earned him an Olympic berth and could reopen the question.
Brown told reporters on a conference call before nationals that he wouldn't attempt a quad in competition until he felt it was a slam dunk, and insisted that eschewing it wouldn't torpedo his chances. Sunday, he left the door slightly ajar, saying he is working on the quad toe and quad Salchow jumps.
"It's definitely something that could possibly happen," Brown said. "I landed the triple Axel three days before I left for Sochi for the junior Grand Prix final, and I put it in the program and I landed it in the short [program]. I'm going to continue to work on it, and if it's there, it's there, and if it's not, it's not going to be in the program."
This may not be a banner Olympics for the U.S. skaters, but it could be a compelling one.