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Who's to blame for Wagner's failure in San Jose?

Skater hints at unfair judging; Others suggest fault lies with skater herself
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Ashley Wagner said she was 'furious' over the marks she received at the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. -Getty Images

Ashley Wagner has gone through this Olympic season as the face (and other body parts) of U.S. women's skating: the one in all the NBC telecast promotions; the one in the ESPN the Magazine's Body Issue, People magazine and commercials for major sponsors; the one entertaining her 174,000 Instagram followers day after day.

But she almost certainly will be invisible during next month's Olympic Winter Games, having failed to make the U.S. team after finishing fourth overall at the U.S. championships Friday night, railing at judging she felt was unfair and saying unequivocally that she deserved one of the three ladies spots.

"I am absolutely furious," she said.

Those who would rip Wagner for speaking her mind are definitely unfair -- and have paid no attention to her refreshing candor over an 11-season senior career as one of the country's leading skaters and most worldly athletes. What she tweeted Saturday was the best answer to that criticism.

"As an athlete, I'm allowed to be mad," she wrote. "As a senior competitor with over 10 years of experience, I'm allowed to question things."

U.S. Figure Skating President Samuel Auxier said Saturday he knew where Wagner was coming from and had no problem with her comments. He also said the 13-member selection committee's discussion on picking third-place finisher Karen Chen over Wagner was "academic," given Chen's higher finishes compared to Wagner's at two straight U.S. championships and the 2017 World Championships.

"She was clearly very upset," Auxier said of Wagner. "It was something she really wanted, and she fell short. I understand her disappointment."

Had Wagner beaten 2017 champion Chen, there is no doubt she would be joining new champion Bradie Tennell and runner-up Mirai Nagasu in PyeongChang, South Korea. That leaves the question of whether the judges did Wagner wrong.

"For me to put out the two programs I did at this competition, as solid as they were, and to get those scores, I am furious, and I think deservedly so," Wagner said.

She suggested the judges held her to a different standard when looking at whether her jumps were fully rotated, and did not comprehend how she -- a three-time U.S. champion long praised for her interpretive flair and artistry -- could get such relatively low program component scores (PCS).

"They still got the results right in my opinion (but with wrong numbers beside components)," longtime skating TV commentator Sandra Bezic wrote in a text message.

"Ashley's (free skate) program was truly lovely and nuanced, but it got overshadowed. She did herself a disservice by not using it all season. That also made her seem complacent.

"But she is to blame for not making the team. She underestimated how hungry the other women were. The right team is going to the Olympics."

Scott Hamilton had a similar view.

"Ashley has been in three Olympic cycles, and she has been vulnerable in the team selection process each time because she didn't skate her best at nationals," Hamilton said.

Two U.S. women went to the 2010 Olympics; Wagner was third at that year's U.S. championships. Three went in 2014; Wagner was fourth that season but made the Olympic team because she was clearly ahead of bronze medalist Nagasu in all the other criteria used.

"I expected her to throw down here, but when I looked in her eyes before the short program, I saw doubt instead of intensity," Hamilton said. "Sometimes athletes tighten up in the Olympic year."

The woman whose Instagram bio says "The sass is real" lacked that animatedness in her two skates at SAP Center. To a degree, the component scores reflected what was missing.

From 2015-17, Wagner had become accustomed to getting the highest component scores at the U.S. championships, even when she did not win a program.

The 2016 and 2017 events are perfect examples: In 2016, she was fourth in the short program and third in the free, but her PCS ranked first and second, respectively. In 2017, she was third in the short and second in the free, and first in PCS in both.

Wagner appears to have reached a point where she thought such PCS would be a given, no matter how she skated. Such an attitude is understandable, given the perception that PCS is awarded based on reputation rather than performance.

"You expect what you're used to," Hamilton said. "She was used to getting different scores."

This time, Wagner's short program PCS ranked second, even though she finished fifth. In the free skate, her placement and PCS were the same: third.

"I'm a performer, and that said, the (second) mark is just not there," Wagner said.

For what it's worth, Hamilton believes Wagner began to lose her edge after winning a silver medal at the 2016 World Championships in Boston.

"Since Boston, Ashley has lost a lot of momentum -- so much that the judges' enthusiasm goes out the window," Hamilton said. "We all have a shelf life, and we covet the new because it is a breath of fresh air."

Is that fair? Not entirely, but it is human nature, especially in, as Wagner put it, "a performance-based sport and an opinion-based sport."

Wagner made an 11th-hour attempt to create a fresh image of herself by ditching the shopworn free skate to Moulin Rouge! she had used in three different seasons for the program to La La Land she originally planned to use this season.

The La La Land choreography was new and attractive, but she performed the same 12 elements in virtually the same order (the step sequence was in a different place) as she had in the Moulin Rouge! program. It is as if an actor were playing Hamlet with the stage direction for King Lear.

Should someone who thinks of herself as a performer adapt a performance significantly for very different music? Does sticking with the old pattern mean her performance and composition marks are likely to be lower?

"For a veteran skater who has had success, it is hard to juggle elements up and down," Hamilton said.

For all this discussion of PCS, it was technical shortcomings that would prove Wagner's statistical undoing.

"As an ISU judge, frankly, I agree with the judging," Auxier said. "When she reviews what she did, she will see the mistake on the combination in the short program was very costly, as was the missed level on the spin at the end of the free skate. Those points were the difference."

Wagner finished 2.4 points behind Chen overall. She lost 1.3 base value points for what was called an under-rotation on the combination and 0.5 base value points for the lower-level spin. Even more costly was popping a planned triple salchow at the end of a free skate combination; Wagner lost 4.18 base value points on that error.

What upset Wagner was a feeling that the judges looked at her rotations more critically than those of other skaters.

"I am absolutely OK with them being strict on my rotations, but it needs to be across the board," Wagner said. "I don't necessarily think it has been that way at this event."

The judges actually slammed Chen far more on rotation flaws in the free skate, downgrading one of her jumps and calling three others under-rotated. That added up to a loss of some seven base value points.

"You can always say I put myself in this position," Wagner said three hours before the team was picked. "But I think I had some help getting here, too."

Four years ago, Nagasu finished one place and eight points ahead of a fourth-place Wagner, but it was not enough for her to overcome Wagner's sizeable advantage in the other selection criteria. From that bitter experience, Nagasu knew how disappointed Wagner is today.

"It's hard," Nagasu said. "I'm ecstatic for myself, but a part of me really feels for her. She is an amazing skater, and I want the best for her. I know she will come back stronger than ever, take this and become a stronger performer, as I have."

Wagner, 26, has given no definitive statements about her future beyond the Olympics, regardless of whether she made the team. She is first alternate for PyeongChang, which means she is expected to stay in shape in case one of the other three women gets injured. She also was selected for the Four Continents Championships, Jan. 23-28 in Chinese Taipei.

"At the end of the day, I laid out my best and I'm going home proud!" Wagner tweeted after the Olympic team was named. "Congrats to the lovely ladies of the team, you've got me in your cheering squad now!"

It was a classy and gracious way for Wagner to accept being in the position she should be, no matter how discomfiting that may be.