Sunday, January 12, 2014

Why Ashley Wagner deserves her spot on the US Olympic Team

Ashley Wagner placed 4th at the US National Championships
this weekend in Boston. (Reuters photo.) 
US figure skating fans found themselves in one of two camps Sunday when the USFSA announced the ladies team for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games set to take place next month in Sochi, Russia. Two time and defending National Champion Ashley Wagner was the topic on everyone's lips. Wagner, having placed fourth in Saturday's ladies finals, was named to the team over third place (and former National Champion) Mirai Nagasu.

Fans, skaters, and sports analysts have all chimed in with how they feel about the decision announced Sunday on who would represent the USA in the games. Former top ranked US skaters and coaches have battled it out with fans and others of the "in crowd" on social media for the better part of Sunday - overshadowing the Men's long program event - many voicing their concern for Mirai's feelings while negating Wagner's.

Four years ago Mirai Nagasu made the Olympic team, narrowly beating Ashley Wagner for the second of two spots. Wagner was devastated to miss out on the Vancouver games and spent the last four years working consistently to better her skating and position on the world stage. That work seemed to be paying off with the two wins at Nationals coupled by her improved International standing. It was Wagner along with teammate Gracie Gold (who won the Championship on Saturday) who regained the three spots leading up to the Sochi Games.

Meanwhile, Mirai saw waning success after a 4th place at the Vancouver Olympics. Mirai's last try at the World Championships was in 2010 and saw her land in 7th place. She's struggled with a very up and down career since then, managing 3rd in 2011 and 7th in both 2012 and 2013 at the US nationals. She managed a couple of medals in the last four years in the Grand Prix series - in events where most of the top world contenders were not present and she was favored to take the title.

Mirai has seen her own sent of controversy when her former coach, the legendary Frank Carroll called her out for her [lack of] work ethic. Nagasu is an expert twitter-er, and would call out fans who even suggested criticism of her programs or skating. After coach hopping, Mirai spent the current season without a coach all the way to Nationals.

Part of Nagasu's problems with her skating is her lack of ability to rotate fully in her jumps, which in turn forces judges to downgrade them to easier levels and fewer points.

The USFSA traditionally goes with the skaters who land on the podium at nationals when choosing their Olympic and World team, but the rules clearly state that US Nationals is not the only determining factor for the team. This is the reason Ashley was chosen over Mirai.

From late 2011 till now Ashley Wagner has been the frontrunner of American Ladies skating. She won her national titles in 2012 and 2013 - though some would argue she was gifted in 2013, medaled on the Grand Prix Series as well as the Final, and in 2012 she was 4th at Worlds. Nationals was the time she truly faltered. While it is true that she does not seem capable of winning the Olympics, she has - so far - shown to be the only USA lady even close to medaling at all in Sochi. She sees the bigger picture of team play, and that, too, went in her favor.

Yes, it is sad that Mirai has been left off. If we want to judge just by international experience and results she should be on and US Silver Medalist Polina Edmunds should be the one off the team. That teams have traditionally been who makes the top of the podium is not and should not be the reason why Ashley should be left from the team. Why should any team shoot itself in the foot by leaving one of their more consistent skaters at home because of an off night?

Mirai has done herself no favors be alienating the powers that be in the past. Ashley does not "toe the party line" but she has demonstrated that she is serious and willing to work for her goals. She has great packaging, and an even better support team. Mirai has... Mirai. No coach, because she either fires them or they fire her. The most controversy Ashley can come up with is her stance on Russia's Anti-Gay Laws. Not something that will come in play on the ice.

It could very well be that Gracie Gold continues the upswing and becomes the American Media Darling by being the highest ranked US lady at the Olympics. Polina could also deliver. There's not a lot of evidence to suggest they will, but there's more evidence against Mirai than there is against any of the three on the ladies team. Ashley Wagner may not have earned it "that night" but she's earned it "overall".

All she has to do now is shake it off and forge ahead. She's done that before, and her body of work suggests she'll do it again.

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