Any athlete who's ever questioned whether that extra hour of practice or extra session in the weight room really makes a difference, meet Ashley Wagner.
Three years ago, the figure skater was sitting in a hotel room, feeling the bitter sting of finishing one spot short of the Olympics. This weekend she is headlining Skate America as the reigning U.S. champion, the best hope the American women have of ending their embarrassing skid on the international scene.
"I'm so excited to get the season started, it's going to be a great year," Wagner said. "The pre-Olympic year is always exciting and I have a chance to tell people I am the one to watch."
Skate America begins Friday in Kent, Wash. The first stop on skating's Grand Prix series was expected to feature the much-anticipated return of Olympic champion Evan Lysacek, who has not competed since the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. But Lysacek had to withdraw last week because of a groin injury, shifting the spotlight to Wagner's showdown with Russia's Alena Leonova and Adelina Sotnikova in the women's competition.
Leonova and Sotnikova are at the forefront of the rebuilding effort for the Russians, who are desperate not to repeat their dismal Vancouver performance at their own 2014 Sochi Olympics. Leonova, who turns 21 next month, was second at last year's senior world championships, giving Russia its first medal at worlds since Irina Slutskaya won the title in 2005.
Sotnikova was just 12 when she won her first Russian senior title, in 2009, and now has won three of the last four. Though Sotnikova missed the age cutoff for Europeans and world championships last year by a day — she turned 15 on July 1 — she was eligible to compete on the senior Grand Prix circuit, and she won a pair of bronze medals.
Leonova and Sotnikova are both former junior world champions, too, Leonova winning in 2009 and Sotnikova in 2011.
"It's always important to kind of have an idea what you're going up against," Wagner said. "I'm aware of both of them. They're both strong competitors. I always love a challenge, so I think it's great they're both going to be there.
"At the same time, I really need to go in there and focus on my own two programs," Wagner added. "... This is an opportunity for me to get my feet wet, start the season off strong. Nothing too big, just two clean, solid performances to get under my belt and build some confidence for the rest of the season."
She'll need every bit of it, because the Americans are counting on big things from her.
Medals and titles once seemed like a birthright of the U.S. women, to say nothing of the maximum three spots at the Olympics and world championships. The Americans produced seven Olympic champions from 1956 to 2006, and claimed at least one medal at all but two world championships between 1970 and 2006. But the Americans have been mired in an epic slump since Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen hung up their skates. They haven't won a world or Olympic medal since 2006, and will have just two spots at worlds for a fifth straight year.
The U.S. only had two spots in Vancouver, too — that's how Wagner ended up as the odd woman out — and Wagner knows she will have to carry most of the load if the Americans are to get that third spot back. To earn three spots for the 2014 Olympics, the two Americans will have to finish with a combined placement of 13 or better (fifth and eighth, for example) at worlds in March.
Wagner was fourth at last year's worlds, the best finish for a U.S. woman since Kimmie Meissner and Cohen went 1-3 in 2006.
"It is nerve wracking and a lot of pressure," Wagner said. "But at the same time, I'm really focusing on myself. I feel if I really try and perform the way I'm practicing, the rest will happen."
The last year is proof.
Wagner went through a miserable stretch after that devastation of missing the 2010 Olympics. She endured "crippling body tremors" as a result of an old head injury that was never treated properly, causing the bones in her neck to press into her spinal cord. It took two hours of therapy each day with a chiropractor to correct the problem. The saga took a toll on her training and she finished sixth at the 2011 U.S. championships, her worst showing as a senior.
Fearful of more disappointment in 2014, Wagner decided in the summer of 2011 that she needed to make some radical changes. She left her family and friends on the East Coast and moved to Southern California to train with John Nicks, best known as Cohen's longtime coach.
Nicks is one of the soundest technicians in the sport, and he made full use of Wagner's considerable athletic ability. But Nicks also has a knack for making artists out of athletes, and his effect on Wagner was breathtaking. Last year's long program, to "Black Swan," was as elegant as it was mercurial, and she performed with the spunk and swagger that was once a U.S. trademark.
Two weeks after claiming the U.S. title, Wagner beat two-time world champion Mao Asada to win the Four Continents.
"Everything I've achieved, I've really had to work for so it's incredible to be at this point in my skating," Wagner said. "Sometimes I don't believe it. It's just really satisfying because every day I worked toward this point in my career. I know I worked as hard as I could, and I know it's finally paid off."