A true trouper, Ashley Wagner always finishes what she starts. That was why it was so jarring to see her slip out of sync with her long program music last month at the Skate America Grand Prix event, shaking her head as the chorus of "One Day I'll Fly Away'' echoed in the rink. She glided quietly over to the boards to have a word with her coach, then crossed the ice to the referee's table to say she couldn't continue.
An infected ankle, caused by a boot chafing against her skin, prompted Wagner to withdraw from a performance in progress for the first time in her career, capping a frustrating stretch. Wagner acknowledged the crowd, her face a stoic mask. She saved her tears until after she was out of the crowd's sight.
Forced off the ice for a week, she confronted chafing of a different kind. Wagner decided she wasn't fully committed to her "Moulin Rouge" program, which she had already tapped twice in the previous Olympic quadrennial.
Before the season, Wagner intended to skate to a new program set to the soundtrack of "La La Land.'' She changed her mind, and insisted her "Moulin Rouge" routine had been freshened up. She ardently defended the decision to lean on a familiar, comfortable motif. It was an attempt to recapture the spark that carried her to a 2016 world silver medal, the first podium at that level by a U.S. woman in 10 years.
Wagner knew the ankle infection would clear up. Her suppressed ambivalence about the old program would not. She felt stagnant and derivative of her own past. Only five weeks remained before the national championships (Jan. 3-7), her last chance to make a case for Olympic team selection -- hardly an ideal time to switch trains.
But Wagner has never been hesitant to make big changes at crucial junctures, whether it's a new dress, a cross-country move or a new free skate at the eleventh hour. (In 2014, she abandoned her long program between the national championships and the Sochi Games, in which she finished seventh.) It was more important to save her 2018 campaign than to save face.
"I was never going to be as hungry as I wanted to be, training that [Moulin Rouge] every single day," Wagner told reporters on a conference call last week. "Sometimes you have to step away from something to realize it's exactly what you need." She worked with the same choreographer, Shae-Lynn Bourne, and had the "La La Land'' music excerpts tweaked to make the program "bigger and more exciting," she said.
Her coach, Rafael Arutunian, may have foreshadowed the change the morning after the Skate America letdown when he said, "It's about motivation. If she will understand why she does it, it will be better.''
But after helping the 26-year-old Wagner rebuild and retool Act II of her eventful, decade-long career, Arutunian said he is more of a spectator than a guide to her internal process. "It's not about me anymore,'' he said. "I can be by your side. I can give you small corrections.''
Wagner's big, late-course correction is a risk, but it isn't as precarious as it may have been. Unlike previous Olympic cycles, all three slots available for the Pyeongchang Games are truly up for grabs. Two-time national champion Gracie Gold will be absent after taking this season off to be treated for depression and an eating disorder. No other U.S. woman has had a slam-dunk season, including defending champion Karen Chen. A cast of younger skaters such as Mariah Bell and Bradie Tennell, the surprise Skate America bronze medalist, will vie for spots with veterans Wagner and Mirai Nagasu.
Wagner's chances are as good or better than anyone else's if she skates cleanly, with her vintage verve. "I'm feeling cool and calm and collected,'' Wagner said. "This was clear and obvious and the most level-headed decision I've made all season.''
Nationals results are only part of the Olympic selection equation, which factors in results from elite international events over the past two seasons. That means Wagner's world medal is technically off the table, but she has two Grand Prix podiums in her quiver: the 2016 Skate America title and a third place at Skate Canada this year.
Still, she likely can't afford the debacle of the 2014 nationals, in which she fell twice during her free skate and mouthed an apology to her mother from the kiss-and-cry area. Wagner landed an Olympic slot anyway, a decision that abided by the official criteria but aroused controversy among fans who thought Nagasu should have gotten the nod.
Wagner knows that kind of pain as well, having been passed over for the 2010 Olympic team -- for which only two U.S. women could qualify -- largely due to an inopportune tumble in her short program that opened a gap she couldn't bridge. Eight years later, she said: "Physically, I'm capable of putting out programs that are just as good as everyone else. Doing it under pressure has been my struggle this year.''
She is not alone in that. The U.S. women are in a down cycle and aren't part of most conversations about the Pyeongchang podium. But Wagner, who likes to challenge convention, told reporters that she wouldn't have stuck around for another four years if she didn't think she could compete with the best. And she intends to finish with the music this time.