Ashley Wagner, one USA’s most promoted Olympians, misses the podium

SAN JOSE, CA - JANUARY 05: Ashley Wagner competes in the Ladies Free Skate during the 2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at the SAP Center on January 5, 2018 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
SAN JOSE, CA - JANUARY 05: Ashley Wagner competes in the Ladies Free Skate during the 2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at the SAP Center on January 5, 2018 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images) /

You’ve seen her in the commercials for NBC’s coverage of the 2018 PyeonChang Olympics, but Ashley Wagner won’t be going to the Olympics. 

Ashley Wagner was the biggest name going into Nationals. She’s been helping the USOC promote the Games across the nation. But where you won’t see her competing is at the 2018 Winter Olympics as she missed securing one of the three spots awarded after Nationals.

Ashley Wagner—an all-American figure skater, an Alexandria, VA, native who attended West Potomac High School—was one of the more famous names promoted by TeamUSA. Aged 26, she was also a celebrated veteran who won a team bronze medal at the Sochi Games in 2014. Many were pulling for her as one of the older competitors in the sport. Some were pulling for her because of the inspiring fight she displayed all season. When she finished her long program at Nationals on Friday night, Wagner had the crowd in her pocket.

But she finished fourth—again, right before the Olympic spots were to be chosen. The last time this happened was at the 2014 Nationals, right behind Marai Nagasu, who placed second on Friday night. Four years ago, the U.S. Figure Skating officials gave the third spot to Ashley Wagner, even though she fell during her long program at the time.

This time around, she had far fewer mistakes and a more polished performance, and by the time she finished, she put her face in her hands, with the crowd cheering what she clearly thought was an Olympic-spot guaranteeing long program. And who can blame her?

Even though Wagner’s free skate came in higher than Karen Chen’s, her overall scores — with the short program included — came in just two points shy of clinching the third spot. The three spots were awarded to the three American skaters who placed in the top. Bradie Tennell—the least artistically sophisticated, but who skated as technically perfect a Cinderella-themed, long program as possible — came in first; 2014’s alternate, six-time U.S. medalist, 24-year-old Mirai Nagasu in second; and 2017 U.S. National Champion, 18-year-old Karen Chen. in third. Wagner was awarded the pewter medal, given to the fourth place winner who will serve as an alternate at the PyeongChang Games next month.

”I don’t think it’s sunk in quite yet. I’m still kind of shocked. It’s indescribable to me,” said U.S. gold medalist Tennell afterwards.

Ashley Wagner knew going into the free skate that her program was technically less potent than Tennell’s or Nagasu’s, who are better known for their jumps. Tennell, especially, dazzled with a flawless program peppered with perfectly executed technical elements. Nagasu’s placement on the Olympic team is especially bittersweet after having been left off in 2014 when she placed higher above Wagner. With the U.S. bronze medalist Karen Chen, the U.S. Olympic team will be a completely new triumvirate.

“This is about my journey,” said Nagasu before the decision was announced Saturday morning. “There is always that chance that I will be skipped over again, but right now I’m enjoying that performance, that training that went into it. To have it come to fruition like it did tonight makes me really emotional.”

“I really feel like the comeback kid,” she added.

Where the controversy lies is with the scoring of the 26-year-old’s component score in the long program. The 2017 silver world medalist Wagner scrapped her successful “Moulin Rouge” program for a free skate she felt more comfortable with, set to “La La Land,” retooling it for Nationals.

She sold it well, earning a 68.00, low considering the sophisticated component elements Wagner employed. Tennell’s technical marks were justified, but others took issue with the higher component score she received over the veteran, a 69.71 for a less polished and elegant program than Wagner’s.

The scores given seemed to indicate the judge’s regard for the older skater, preferring youthful athleticism over sophisticated maturity. Still, there was a glimmer of hope that Ashley Wagner would receive a repeat second chance and would perhaps be given the third spot over Chen once officials deliberated. Olympic selection takes into account a skater’s performance throughout the season. Wagner had achieved a career-high of silver medal at last year’s Worlds—the first American world medalist in 11 years—which would have helped her consideration. However, her uneven season since then did not help, including a withdrawal from November’s Skate America, when she quit her long program due to an ankle infection.

Wagner also voiced her anger after the free skate at Nationals, feeling understandably frustrated about her component scores. Complaining right before the U.S. Figure Skating officials deliberated didn’t seem to help.

“I’m furious, I am absolutely furious,” Wagner said. “I know when I go and I lay it down and I absolutely left one jump on the table, but for me to put out two programs that I did at this competition as solid as I skated and to get those scores, I am furious, and I think deservedly so. I am a performer and that second mark is just not there.”

But this time around, officials went with the results from Friday night’s Nationals, awarding the three spots to the top three finishers. Their decision likely ends Ashley Wagner’s Olympic hopes. The 2018 Games would have probably been Wagner’s last Olympic event.

What the USOC and NBC will do since they’ve been using Wagner’s presence in all their marketing efforts is another matter. The heartbreaking loss for Ashley Wagner is part of the harsh reality of what makes the Olympic competition so compelling. With only three spots and four deserving skaters, the decision was always going to be difficult one no matter who was left off the podium.