BOSTON — If there's one person who knows how badly Ashley Wagner skated Saturday night, and how fortunate she is to have been put on the U.S. Olympic team for Sochi, it's Ashley Wagner.
"I'm fully, fully prepared to get people saying, 'Why are you on the team? How did that happen? I don't get it. You don't deserve to be here,'" she said Sunday afternoon after being placed on the three-woman Olympic team in the wake of stumbling to a fourth-place finish Saturday night. "I'm very prepared for that. But I'm also prepared to say, OK, the hard part's over. I made it onto the team. I can't dwell on this performance, because that's not going to do anything for me. I'm just going to propel myself into becoming that strong, hard-headed Olympian."
Wagner, 22, the nation's most decorated and experienced skater over the past two years, spent nearly 50 minutes with the news media, ducking nothing, analyzing everything and accepting total blame for being "that terrified little wimp out on the ice."
"I definitely didn't show up when the world was watching, and skating needs someone who will definitely show up when the world is watching," she said.
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Wagner, a two-time national champion, has been here before. She fell twice in last year's national championship long program, just as she did here, yet bounced back to finish a strong fifth at the 2013 world championships.
"There seems to be a little bit of a pattern," she said with a laugh. "Hopefully it will be similar to last year. I got the worst out of my system. This really was just the nerves crushing me at this event with so much on the line."
Making it to the Olympics, she figures, is harder than competing once she gets there. She's not the first skater to say that.
"Nationals is a different beast," she said. "When I'm in Sochi, that is icing on top of the cake."
In the 3½ weeks that remain before the Games begin, Wagner said she will analyze what went wrong in her long program, in which she said her legs felt like "lead" and she jumped like it. "I need to change things around by myself," she said.
"Nickel and dimes, 20s and 100s," she said.
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Few athletes are as honest and refreshing as Wagner. Asked if her willingness to speak out against Russia's anti-gay law, along with her various pre-Olympic commercial endorsements, had forced her to take on too much before the nationals, she didn't flinch.
"Not at all," she said. "Everything that I took on, I really thought about it, with the exception of speaking out on the LGBT legislation, because that didn't require any thought at all."
After a practice here earlier in the week, Wagner was greeted along the boards by several people holding rainbow flags.
"I've had a lot of people come up and thank me, and it makes me really happy to have support back from the LGBT community but I don't feel like I did anything special. I just opened my mouth, and apparently that was a big deal. But the support has been overwhelming, and when I hear from people that they're really proud of me for speaking up, that only really makes me want to stick to the cause even more because that puts a face on who I'm pushing for."
Wagner's value to the U.S. Olympic team comes not only in her international experience, but also as a leader in what can be an extremely self-centered sport, especially with the Olympics' inaugural figure skating team competition debuting Feb. 6.
Saturday night, as Wagner stepped onto the ice before her long program, another competitor, Christina Gao, had just finished a tough skate. Wagner went out of her way to skate over and give her a hug. I've covered this sport for 26 years and I've never seen a competitor do that before the most important performance of her life. "At that moment," Wagner said, "she was my friend."
She did the same when she was called to the podium after her disheartening fourth-place finish, making a point to stop and have a conversation with all three of the young rivals who had beaten her that night, lingering several seconds with each one. In a moment of bitter personal disappointment, Wagner spent the most time with the woman who replaced her as national champion, Gracie Gold.
"Congratulations," she told Gold. "You were the star of the night."
No wonder this woman is an Olympian. She was made for the role.
Follow columnist Christine Brennan on Twitter @cbrennansports.
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