Doubt and inconsistency had been Ashley Wagner's faithful travel companions until this year.
They followed Wagner when she left her home in northern Virginia to live and train for three seasons in Delaware with a new coach, Priscilla Hill.
They preyed on her mind so much Wagner thought long and hard about giving up figure skating after she missed the 2010 Olympic team. She thought about it again after last season, which Wagner called mediocre even though she had overcome months of frightening body tremors finally diagnosed as having been caused by pinched nerves in her neck and relieved by physical therapy.
There she was, good enough to have finished third at the U.S. Championships as a 16-year-old in 2008, bad enough to have finished a distant sixth at age 19 in 2011.
"I didn't want to be one of those people who just couldn't let go," she said. "It might sound amazing to some people, but there really is a life outside figure skating, and I didn't want to waste my time if it was holding me back from my actual life. That isn't healthy."
Wagner had been saving money for a four-year college. She decided this would be the last year in which she spent nearly all her energy on skating unless her results improved dramatically.
And then she took a big gamble, spending a big chunk of that money moving cross-country to work with Nicks, an elfin, 82-year-old coach so intimidating to her that Wagner was afraid to initiate contact with him. Her choreographer, Phillip Mills, who works at the same rink in Aliso Viejo as Nicks, was the intermediary.
"When I passed Mr. Nicks in the halls at events, he looked so intense and strict I was terrified of him," Wagner said.
Nicks, whose skaters have won 16 U.S. senior titles in singles and pairs, had no impression of Wagner until they talked about working together. Then he looked at her record and wondered why it was so inconsistent.
"To be honest, I hadn't taken much notice of her," Nicks said. "To be brutally honest, I hadn't been worried about her."
Five months after she began training with Nicks, even though her results on last fall's Grand Prix circuit were unremarkable, Wagner felt confident enough to tell icenetwork.com, "This is, I think, my nationals to lose."
A month later, she won the U.S. title, earning her first spot on a U.S. team for the senior World Championships since 2008, when she finished a dismal 16th.
Last week, Nicks felt confident enough to say Wagner had an excellent chance to win a medal at the world meet that begins Wednesday in Nice, France, "if she can repeat her skating from Four Continents."
Nicks actually is more impressed by her having improved in each of five competitions, starting with a low-level club event last summer, but he knows the mid-February Four Continents Competition in Colorado Springs was significant for several reasons.
It was the first international victory of Wagner's senior career. It proved her winning performance at nationals was no fluke. She beat a field that included the two-time world champion, Mao Asada of Japan. And judges gave her such high marks they confirmed she was a player on the world scene.
Wagner's score for the short and long programs and total each was her international personal best. The total, 192.41, both topped her previous best by 25 points and left her seventh on the all-time list, with Asada the only active skater above her.
"I was pretty frustrated after the Grand Prix series," Wagner said. "I felt I had skated the best of my life but the scores were the same. For them to give me those marks at Four Continents was very important to me mentally."
Financially, too. Wagner's first prize at Four Continents was $15,000, and she had earned another $12,000 for third and fourth places on the Grand Prix. That validated her decision to quit a part-time job at a LuckyBrand jeans store in the Mission Viejo, Calif., mall.
Wagner coming into her own on her own
Under Nicks' tutelage, self-reliant skater could earn medal at World Championships
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