Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Why World Silver Medalist Ashley Wagner is So Much More Than a Drought-Buster

Who does that...? ME! That’s who. Crazy people (like me).

Does that sound like something that reigning World Silver Medalist Ashley Wagner would say? It does to me. But, alas, it’s not her quote.

Let me explain.

I’m what you might call a workout-at-home aficionado, and as I result I know what exercise programs—and trainers—work me into a sweaty, drippy pulp. Currently, that trainer is Jillian Michaels. And dear ol’ Jillian has a DVD that’s been out a few years now called Ripped in 30 that I tend to use when I’m bored with the cardio discs in her Body Revolution series. And during one particularly grueling stretch of floor-based cardio (I HATE most of her floor-based moves, so I know they must be good for me) she pairs up 30 seconds of mountain climbers with 30 seconds of what I think she calls floor-jacks. Then she repeats the sequence. Ugh. UGH!

And in the middle of all this you hear her voice (because you don’t dare look up at the screen if you know the moves by now) saying “Two minutes... of cardio... in plank (position). Who does that? Who...does... that...? 

"ME! That’s who. Crazy people!

"And you bought this DVD, you fool!” she then barks, as she is prone to do. I don't remember much she says after that; I’m usually chuckling a little by this point because I get all my Jillian DVDs from my local library, you see...

But I digress. I’ll get back on track now by explaining what any of this has to do with Wagner. And I’ll start by throwing down a little research I did in the past week:

+  In the post-World War II era (1946 to present), 30 different ladies have held the U.S. National title.

+  Of those 30 ladies, 24 have gone on to win World and/or Olympic medals. (I’m not counting the Olympic team bronze won by USA in 2014... only individual medals.)

+  The six that have not done so: Laurence Owen (1961 winner who perished in the Sabena Flight 548 crash en route to Worlds; she finished 9th at Worlds the previous year)... Lorraine Hanlon (1963 winner and part of the “rebuilding” years; best finish at Worlds was 10th)... Mirai Nagasu (2008 winner; 2010 Olympics 4th, best Worlds finish to-date 7th)... Alissa Czisny (2009 & 2011 winner; best Worlds finish 5th)... Rachael Flatt (2010 winner; 2010 Olympics 7th, best Worlds finish 5th)...and Gracie Gold (2014 Olympics 4th, best Worlds finish to-date 4th).

I hope it’s needless to say this, but I list these names as a statement of history... not blame. Obviously Owen’s story is tragic, and I suspect Hanlon’s might be more interesting than anyone knows (go read her Wiki page to see what I mean). And the modern-day names... the ones who contributed to the infamous “drought”? There’s at least a dozen different things you could point to as explanation, including the rise of Japanese singles skaters, injuries on the part of the U.S. team, “mental toughness” (or lack thereof) on the part of the U.S. team, lack of competitive drive, skating in the shadow of the Kwan Era, skating during Kim Yu-Na and Mao Asada’s dominance... I’m not sure it matters.

Until a couple weeks ago, Wagner’s name was right in there with the rest of them. First she was the “almost girl” because she couldn’t quite claim that National title in her first four attempts (3rd in her ’08 senior debut, then 4th in ’09, 3rd in ’10, and 6th in ’11)... then something similar happened with the Worlds podium: four attempts in four years, with the results being 4th, 5th, 7th, and 5th, respectively.

And then came Boston.

Sometime shortly after the final results were announced (and yes, I do plan to do a more comprehensive review of those results/Worlds itself), I said something on Twitter speculating about Gracie’s FS implosion—admittedly a big exaggeration; I mean, we have seen implosions in this sport and that wasn’t one of them. But I was thinking of Gracie in 1st after the SP, and Ash in 4th... and yes, I can see the outcome being reversed had Ashley been in the lead. (And I bet Mirai Nagasu really can see it; she herself fell from 1st in the SP to 7th overall in her only other Worlds appearance.)  I also thought it worth noting that Gracie’s got a lot less experience from which to draw. When Ashley was Gracie’s age at Worlds—in 2012—she finished 4th, just as Gracie did. But that was after being 8th in the SP and rebounding with the 3rd best FS of the event (with her Black Swan program).

That actually brings me back to my original point (love it when that happens), which is this: Ashley Wagner is in a class by herself now... a true exception to The Rule. I’ll go back to my research to explain:

+  Of those 24 post-WW2 champions who went on to medal on the World and/or Olympic podium, 21 of them did so within 2 years of winning the U.S. title. Many got to the World podium the same year as their initial U.S. win; several actually medaled at Worlds and/or Olympics before nabbing that title (see Carol Heiss, Nancy Kerrigan and Sasha Cohen, to name a few).

+  Exception #1: Gretchen Merrill, who kept the U.S. title from 1943-1948 but didn’t claim her only World medal—a bronze—until 1947. In her case we’ll never know if she’d have medaled sooner... due to the war there were no World Championships between 1940-46.

+  Exception #2: Janet Lynn, who first won the U.S. title in 1969 but didn’t have a podium breakthrough on the world stage until three years later—when she won bronze both at the Olympics and at Worlds. In her case, as you might already know, her struggles with compulsory figures undercut her exceptional free skating. (Example: Lynn was 5th in figures and 1st in the free skate at 1971 Worlds—remember, there was no SP until 1973—so with figures counting 60% of the overall score, Lynn finished behind medalists Trixie Schuba, fellow American Julie Lynn Holmes, and Karen Magnussen.)

 Exception #3: Wagner. And in her case, there was no World War interference and no figures holding her down. Just some powerful determination keeping her together, over and over again.

It could be argued that Wagner is fortunate to be competing at a time in the sport when women single skaters often continue at a world-class level well into their 20s. And I guess she is. But the days of “going professional” after one Olympic cycle (maybe two, depending on the skater) are very seldom seen anymore. The opportunities just aren’t there. So they keep going—maybe longer than their body is willing, maybe longer than they have any real desire to. Are they “crazy people”, to bring back the Jillian quote I used earlier? Not likely. They’re just people, trying to (still) make something happen when the odds stack higher against them all the time.

And that’s what makes Ashley’s accomplishment so much more than simply “ending the medal drought” for the U.S. women. Her victory is, quite literally, EXCEPTIONAL. All on its own.

1 comment:

sara.raju said...

1st off, great article. I'm reading Laurie Owen's wiki page right now.
2nd I'm so glad Ashley Wagner stuck around as long as she did. You can see the difference in maturity and expression in her skating that I think many of the younger girls REALLY lack. She and Mao Asada were the class of the field artistically. Like when I watch Gracie or Pogorilaya and especially Radianova(she looked so frantic!) I just feel nothing. I read an article about Ashley that said she was a lady in a rink full of girls and I so agree. She really is a skater's skater. Her expression is just on a completely different level. I'm really excited to see new programs from her though(as much as I do love her programs now)