Ashley Wagner’s silver medal last month at the World Figure Skating Championships may be heralded in the press as “the end of a decade-long drought” for the American ladies, but for Wagner and her longtime fans, the podium finish represented much more: not simply validation, but vindication.
To the casual viewer, Wagner’s entrance to center ice for her long program and the bellow of a forceful violin throughout Boston’s TD Garden would appear standard: another sequin-dusted dress, another classical song, another elegant mixture of balletic choreography and acrobatic jumps.
But as Wagner moves into her opening element — a double axel — a voice echoes throughout the stadium, singing, “Love is just a game.” The moment her blade touches the ice, the music — a medley of songs from the Moulin Rouge soundtrack –transitions to a more aggressive, fast-paced rhythm. Wagner’s smooth swoops and swirls transform into sharp hand movements and powerful flights across the rink.
This music selection may seem jarring. While the International Skating Union forbade the use of songs with lyrics or voices for decades, the rule was changed for the 2014-15 season as a way to attract more interest to the sport. However, performing for a panel of ultra-conservative judges who notoriously favor traditional skating, the majority of elite skaters have waived the opportunity, opting to perform to Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff as hundreds have done before them.
But not Ashley Wagner. The three-time U.S. champion, who placed bronze at nationals this past January, is one of the few to take advantage of the amendment. Not one to shy away from risk, Wagner incorporated lyrics in both her short and long programs this season. She refuses to play the game, as her competitors do, of reducing herself to fit the image preferred by the judges.
The United States Figure Skating Association has historically shied away from enthusiastically promoting Wagner’s brazen personality, despite the fact that she has amassed an impressive number of international medals, including three consecutive podium finishes (2013-2015) at the Grand Prix Final and a gold medal at the 2012 Four Continents Championship.
More palatable, perhaps, is Wagner’s biggest competition: Gracie Gold, the 20-year-old superstar who currently holds the national title. When Gold held the top spot after the short program and Wagner was a negligible 3.3 points behind in fourth, it was Gold’s beaming face that graced news stories, tweets, and commercials leading up to the long program.
While Wagner has a brilliant presence on the ice, her fearless personality off the ice may be too much for the establishment to handle. During the 2014 Winter Olympics Team Event in Sochi, Wagner skated a clean short program that the U.S. team hoped would help recover their place in the standings after a dreadful showing in the men’s portion. However, Wagner’s smile morphed into to an indignant scowl as her underwhelming scores appeared. Despite the dynamic performance, her score of 63.10 was the lowest short program score of her 2014-14 season.
Such a bold and candid reaction — jaw stretched and nose wrinkled in disgust — are taboo in the Kiss and Cry, where even the worst scores elicit nothing more than a restrained sigh and diplomatic wave to the crowd, and the image of Wagner’s fuming face immediately went viral. Although figure skating has been scrounging for more attention, the USFSA seemingly prefers a medal-donning beauty on a Wheaties box to a sassy meme.
At the age of 24, Wagner is considered a seasoned veteran. She entered the senior circuit in the 2007-08 season, when she medaled at her first international event (a bronze at Trophée Éric Bompard) and at her first senior nationals (also a bronze). While the teen competitors bring in youthful energy, Wagner counters with finesse and musicality, giving her an edge in execution and artistry points. But Wagner’s young American rivals are also more willing to follow the USFSA guidelines: choosing innocuous music and choreography, nodding politely when receiving their scores, and reciting stock answers in interviews, like the classic, “I’m just really proud of what I did today.”
Ultimately, Wagner’s rebellion might have been irrelevant if she had produced a solid record to fall back on. Her reputation, unfortunately, is one of implosion — a talented skater riddled by inconsistency. Within the last few seasons, Wagner has become known for botching required elements in the short program and pushing her out of medal contention. Then, right on cue, she stepped on the ice for her long program and brought the house down, but it’s rarely enough to capture the gold.
That is precisely what happened at the 2012 World Championships, where she self-destructed in the short program, sending her to an eighth place finish. Spectators wrote her off until she reappeared for the long program and delivered a podium-worthy performance. Combined with her abysmal short program score, however, it was not enough, and she left the competition empty handed.
This pattern recurs so frequently that Wagner’s fans now anticipate it. Her short program tumbles are practically celebrated, as if part of her strategy. Wagner’s shaky short program at January’s U.S. Nationals placed her in fourth place behind Gold and the other young Americans. Fans were not concerned; in fact, they Tweeted their support with phrases like, “You’re right where you want to be!” and “Time to make the classic Ashley Wagner comeback!”
And come back, she did — but not enough to defend her national title. After a strong opening to her Moulin Rouge program, she “popped” one of her final jumps — meaning she landed it, but completed only one rotation instead of three. Singling a triple jump is an expensive mistake, costing more points than an actual fall, and Wagner left the competition in third, behind Gold and 17-year-old Polina Edmunds.
So when Wagner delivered a stunning short program in Boston at this World Championships, skating fans weren’t quite sure what to expect going into the long program. The field of international competitors — especially the Russian and Japanese teams — was strong, Wagner has rarely put together two clean programs in one competition, and USFSA’s darling Gold seemed the favorite for an American podium finish. Moreover, as memorialized with 2014’s Face That Went Viral, even her clean programs have failed to produce winning scores. Wagner’s skating may be enough to enchant the audience, but either the judges were picking up on mistakes the viewers were not, her programs were not difficult enough, or her audacious performances were turning off the conservative judges. Perhaps it was a mix of the three, leaving her fans captivated but forced to settle for “good enough” ever since her senior debut in 2007.
As a result, the mood for the ladies long program was one of probable discontent. Fans were wishful, but apprehensive, and with Wagner’s age in this physically demanding sport, each attempt at this eluded medal could be her last. History had shown that the judges would not be generous, so the pressure was on her to lay down a routine worth rewarding.
The final skater of the night, Wagner landed each technical element with polish and engaged the crowd with a powerful and impassioned performance. When she completed her final jumping pass — the triple Lutz that evaded her at the National Championships — the screams from the audience drowned out the remaining seconds of her music, illustrating her spellbinding command over viewers.
Watch her complete performance:
And for once, the judges agreed, awarding her with a long program score of 142.23 — enough to secure the silver medal behind Russian prodigy Evgenia Medvedeva. Wagner’s success not only confirms her immense talent that has repeatedly been questioned throughout her career, but it demands the respect of an establishment — or indeed, the entire figure skating community — that insists on clinging to tradition and stifling the personality of its competitors.
Lauren Smith is a graduate student at New York University studying education and writing. She was been watching figure skating since the 1998 Olympics. Follow her on Twitter.