Life changed in an unexpected way for Ashley Wagner following her long program at the 2018 U.S. Championships.
Wagner had hoped to earn a spot on the 2018 U.S. Olympic team that would compete at the Games in PyeongChang. Instead, she finished in fourth place, relegating the then 26-year-old to the dreaded role of Olympic alternate. The impact of not achieving her Olympic goal took an unexpected and heavy toll on her emotionally and mentally.
It was not the happy ending Ashley Wagner had envisioned. For the second time in a row, she placed fourth at a national championship that preceded an Olympic Winter Games. Wagner was named to the 2014 U.S. Olympic team despite her placement, but this year that concession was not extended to her by U.S. Figure Skating.
Nearing the end of her competitive career, Wagner knew this would likely be her last chance to compete at an Olympic Winter Games. The realization that she would not be going to PyeongChang as a member of the U.S. team caused her to fall into a deep, dark place.
“As soon as I found out I didn’t make the team, I rented a car the next day and drove down the Pacific Coast Highway by myself, hoping it would bring me some clarity,” Wagner said.
“After I got home and the lights, the people and the event had faded away — that’s when I really sunk into a depression. I realized I hadn’t planned for this outcome and having to mourn something that wasn’t really tangible made it really hard to process. A week later my cat was hit by a car and passed away, so a lot of things combined just made me not really give up, but definitely made me lose all interest in participating in life around me.”
In an effort to overcome the disappointment, Wagner mobilized herself and began looking at other options to lessen the sting of not achieving her goal. “I said, ‘I gotta turn this big ole lemon into my lemonade,’” she recalled. “So I called my agent and pulled my people together and asked, ‘what am I doing next? Let’s keep me busy. Let’s get me active and doing something.’”
A month later, Wagner was at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games — not as an athlete — but as a special correspondent for Access Hollywood and creating digital content for Toyota. “I got Access and Toyota immediately after nationals. I kind of got my foot in the door with that side of television and production, and really found that I loved it,” she said. “They were amazing opportunities, but I had to kind of put on an act and put on a show for those two opportunities because privately and personally I was going through hell.
“As soon as the Games were done, I had a meeting with everyone. I wanted to get the ball rolling with my future — figuring out what I was going to be when I grow up. I told them broadcasting was the way I wanted to go.”
Wagner was subsequently advised that creating podcast content might be a good way to continue to get her feet wet. That concept piqued her interest, and a plan was set in motion for Wagner to host her own podcast. “It will be a little bit skating focused, a little bit life focused, and that’s really exciting for me,” she said. “I can’t wait to get that experience under my belt to see what it’s like to really start interviewing people and talking about the sport. My main goal is to become a commentator or be involved in sports broadcasting, so this is super exciting for me.”
ROAD TO RECOVERY
The struggle to rebound continued through the spring and early summer, Wagner said. In an Instagram post on Oct. 10, World Mental Health Day, Wagner revealed what she had been going through the past few months. “I could barely get out of bed. I could barely function,” she said. “The day-to-day was such a struggle for me. At first I was just really disappointed in myself for letting one event in my life derail everything that I thought I knew was true about myself and how I saw my place in the world and how I felt about my own sense of worth and value.”
When Wagner eventually opened up to friends and family about how she was feeling, they encouraged her to seek professional help. Wagner took their advice. “I am in a completely different place now than I was then because I had a professional help me. I’m definitely not 100 percent better, but it’s one of those things where it’s a work in progress and it’s day by day. Because I was able to eventually get myself to a point where I sought help, I’m finally gaining tools to help myself get better.”
As she moved through the recovery process, Wagner realized what she needed most was a change of scenery. She had promised herself that after the Olympic season — no matter what happened in her skating career — she was going to let herself live a little bit of life.
Though Wagner is proud of her accomplishments and longevity in the sport, she realized that competing at the elite level for more than a decade had taken its toll. “Skating is incredible for so many reasons, and I have been at the elite level as one of the top U.S. ladies — if not the top U.S. lady — for about a decade,” Wagner said. “When you’ve been at that level as long as I have, you also get tired — emotionally tired, physically tired. I was exhausted from years of that pressure on my shoulders, from competing in the sport.
“In the final months of last season, I was so incredibly unhappy. I was stressed out; I had too much on my plate and I was doing everything by myself. My life just became work. Work happened to be skating, and it really affected my relationship with the sport.
“Not a lot of people understand that as an elite athlete, my life was a one-track record — it just played over and over again. You don’t really learn much about yourself as a person beyond who you are as an athlete. I wanted to give myself some time to do that and I knew that was not going to happen in California.
“I was at a point where I said to myself, ‘you can go live some life to see what you like and what you don’t like.’ I don’t think I really started to push myself into a better place until I moved out of California. I was trying to build a new life in the bones of my old one.
“I always wanted to get back east — my whole family is on the east coast, and it was just one of those things where I looked at a map, picked a place and just packed up and moved.”
That place was Boston, the site of her silver-medal winning performance at the 2016 World Championships. “I love this city so much. I love the people and I love the life that I am creating for myself,” said Wagner. “It’s also helping me create a much more positive relationship with skating.
“Now when I go to the rink and get on the ice, it’s my choice — because I want to. It’s getting me really excited about the sport again, and that’s something I needed. Just changing it up and allowing myself the chance to live the life that I promised myself I would have, I’m incredibly happy and fulfilled.”
While on hiatus from competitive skating, Wagner has embraced new opportunities that are keeping her connected to the sport. She went to Shanghai in the spring to perform with Stars on Ice, and performed in a show in Beijing in the latter part of the year.
“I’ve been able to say yes to a lot of cool skating shows. I am joining Jeremy Abbott’s show in the winter for Gay Ski Week. I have never been so excited for anything in my entire life,” said Wagner, a long-time ally of the LGBT+ community. “I can do that because I am taking time away from competitive skating, and I’m getting these really cool opportunities that I didn’t have time for before. Jeremy has a show every year in his hometown of Aspen, Colorado, and I usually can’t do it because it’s so close to nationals.
“But this year he scheduled it during Aspen’s Gay Ski Week. I am imagining drag queens on skis and if it’s anything less, I think I’ll be really disappointed. It’s going to be a blast, and part of the proceeds is going to charity. It’s a really cool thing that he’s doing for skating and for the LGBT+ community.”
In between her various professional commitments, the 27-year-old is now coaching — on a consultant basis — at the Skating Club of Boston. “I’m the kind of person who has to stay busy or I go insane,” she said. “Coaching has been a really good opportunity for me to stay busy and be in a rink. I get to train pretty much every single day, and I get to create a new relationship with skating and learn more about the sport. I feel like my skating has improved so much just by working with the kids and having to explain everything that I know.
“It’s been pretty humbling. It’s not my long-term goal — I don’t want to coach for the rest of my life, but right now I’m just trying to be smart and this is a good opportunity. It would be a shame to let it go right by me.
“I am no one’s head coach. Honestly, after working with Rafael (Arutyunyan) for as long as I did and seeing the passion and the amount of time and energy that he put into his students, I would never want to be a full-time coach and be any different than what he was for me.
“So, I’m coming in as a secondary coach because, like I said, this year is for myself — this time away from competitive skating is me doing my own thing.”
Although Wagner initially registered for the 2019 U.S. Championships, she will now likely attend as a spectator to cheer on the athletes who do compete.
“Do you know that retired athletes go to nationals and they all just go get a nice glass of wine and just watch nationals? That sounds lovely,” she said with a laugh. “There’s nothing more that I want to do than have a glass of wine and watch everyone else be stressed out and reminisce about how stressed I used to be. It’s your right as a retired athlete at that point to absolutely partake in that.”
If the 2018 U.S. Championships was her last hurrah, Wagner said she would leave the competitive ranks with just a single regret. “Letting myself get burned out would have to be a huge regret of mine. I think a lot of fingers could be pointed at a lot of different things, but at the end of the day the one thing I wish I had done was ask for help much sooner,” she admitted.
“I do everything on my own. I have been on my own since I was 18, so I’m very independent. It’s not my natural habit to ask when I need help. I got really overwhelmed with everything that was on my plate the last two years and I think that took away from my ability to be as strong as I possibly could be on the ice. But, I’ve had an incredible career. I am so proud of every single thing that I have done. In the end, I have no real regrets — I just wish that I would have opened the door to get some other people to help bear the weight.”
If she does hang up her competitive skates, Wagner said she would miss the crowds who provided some of the best memories in her long career. “If that was my last nationals, I will absolutely miss the sound of the audience on its feet as I am finishing up my spin at the end. That’s the coolest thing. But I can also know that if that was my last nationals, I finished with people on their feet. After all the things I have done in my career, that’s really all I can ask for.”
When asked what she would and would not miss about training, Wagner had an immediate response for both scenarios. “There is something really satisfying about being so exhausted that you can barely move at the end of the day. I like that, and right now I am trying to find something that gives me that same feeling. I skate — and it’s definitely difficult — but there’s nothing quite like being so exhausted that you feel like you’re totally empty as a person. That’s a really great description though not a great sell on the feeling, but I love when I have spent every ounce of energy that I have to give in a day.
“I do not miss feeling so lonely. It’s a really lonely life being an athlete. When I was training, I missed my family and I missed being with my friends. I always had to say no to things, and I feel like my life was always just training. I don’t miss that. My life is so much richer now and I am loving it.
“A few nights ago I went to a music concert with Marissa Castelli on a training night. I got to go and randomly do something on a weeknight. It was fantastic. I didn’t ever get to do those kinds of things. This is going to sound so basic, but I get to go meet friends for drinks — it’s so fun. I am joining a rock climbing club — I couldn’t do that before because it was a waste of energy, so I feel like I am getting to expand on my life.”
(Originally published in the IFS December 2018 issue)