EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Ten Olympic figure skating gold medalists lined up side by side at the Izod Center to rehearse their introductions for a show called "Tribute to American Legends of the Ice."
At one end was two-time Olympic champion Dick Button, whose 1948 and '52 victories were the earliest. At the other was Evan Lysacek, the reigning men's Olympic champion. Between them stood seven Olympic silver medalists and eight of the other 11 U.S. men and women who have won Olympic titles.
The show's director told the assembled group they would be running through the introductions three times, which would take 15 minutes more. That prompted a reaction of feigned impatience from one of the 2014 Olympic hopefuls who would be introduced later.
"They have already had their moment," Ashley Wagner said. "I'm still waiting for mine."
She has been waiting since it slipped away after a fall on her third jump at the 2010 U.S. championships in Spokane, Wash., the de facto selection meet for the U.S. team that went to the 2010 Winter Games. TV cameras caught a reaction of disgust about missing the team that was classic Wagner: honest and unafraid to express herself on the issue at hand, be it her gut emotions or Russia's anti-gay legislation.
After a disappointing fourth in Thursday's short program at the U.S. Championships in Boston, where the results weigh significantly in selection of the Olympic team but are not the sole determinant, defending champion Wagner seemingly has one of the three U.S. women's tickets to the Sochi Winter Games in her grasp based on her performance this season and the last two. Wagner trails leader Gracie Gold by 7.41 points and runner-up Polina Edmunds by 2.04 going into Saturday's free skate.
She is the first to win consecutive women's national titles since Michelle Kwan in 2005, easily the leading U.S. woman on the Grand Prix circuit this season and a solid contender for an Olympic medal after finishing fifth and fourth at the last two world championships.
Wagner's road from Spokane to Sochi has been bumpy and circuitous. There were moments of defeat and confusion that would have shaken most skaters' confidence. In her, they prompted a defiant determination befitting an athlete raised by a father who was a military officer and a mother who readily admits to being the tough one in the family.
To see Wagner now, at 22, is to see a young woman comfortable in her own skin and wise enough to understand that focusing only on a sole, hoped-for moment is like going through life with blinders. That she is enjoying the ride, both literally and figuratively, was evident in a couple of days in December.
Ashley Wagner began Monday, Dec. 9, in Fukuoka, Japan, where she had earned $12,000 for finishing third in the Grand Prix Final two days earlier, then flew 161/2 hours in coach via Tokyo to Newark, N.J. Body clock issues from the 14-hour time difference limited her to three hours' sleep each of the next two nights.
Now it was 6:15 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 11, and Wagner was at the Rockefeller Center ice rink doing a run-through of the program she would do two hours later on the "Today" show.
When she finished, Wagner remained on the ice for some pictures with friends.
"I didn't want to get off," she said while standing on a bench to be closer to a ceiling heat vent that took the chill off the 29-degree weather. She would reject the offer to do the live TV performance in warmup clothes, taking the ice for 21/2 minutes in a dress that left her arms and back bare.
Wagner called her mother, Melissa James, as soon as she got into the limousine taking her back to a New Jersey hotel. Despite the disorientation of jet lag and being so tired she felt nauseated, her enthusiasm was that of, well, a kid at Christmas.
"This morning was one of the 10 coolest things I've ever done," she told her mother. "It felt like the whole city was yours."
James plainly was delighted to be at the other end of that conversation. She recalled Ashley having described the awe she felt in a previous "Today" show performance, when she was doing a spin with her head back and suddenly noticed the skyscrapers looming above.
"Those are the moments you want your children to have," James said by telephone.
Especially after the heartbreak her daughter endured in 2010 and 2011. And, more recently, the chaos she had to deal with in the month last spring when Ashley was dissed publicly by her former choreographer, had to find a new coach, split up with her boyfriend and learned her parents' divorce was final.
"You always imagine everything will go so smoothly in the Olympic season," Ashley said.