BOSTON -- Ashley Wagner bounded onto the ice at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday, full of energy and confident, in a hurry to tackle a moment she had waited and worked four hard years for.
She stopped at center ice at TD Garden and the brink of four minutes that would decide whether she would finally erase the crushing disappointment of 2010 and fulfill her Olympic dreams, or remain American skating's "Almost Girl."
Wagner, the two-time defending U.S. champion, looked to her left at her coach Rafael Arutyunyan behind the side boards as her name was announced over the deafening cheers of the crowd.
"They called my name and I was just like ...," Wagner recalled, pausing as she fought her emotions. 'Like 'Oh, my God, it's time to go.'"
And she wasn't ready.
"This is tough because you go out there and your dreams are literally on the line," Wagner said. "I've been there in practice and I'm that skater that deserves to be on the team, but right now under the pressure of it coming true or not, it's hard to block that out. It's hard to not feel like your legs are full of lead."
Wagner, buckling under the burden of both the occasion and her own personal history, stumbled through a free skate that never really took off on a night full of drama and controversy and that promised even more of both Sunday morning.
Gracie Gold, 18, the 2013 U.S. runner-up, stamped herself as a legitimate medal contender in Sochi with a commanding victory that was clinched even before she pumped both her fists after landing her final jump in her routine's final moments.
"A dream come true," Gold said after posting a 211.69 overall score.
Sorting out who joins Gold, sixth at the 2013 World Championships, in Sochi is a nightmare that promised to keep at least three women and a U.S. Figure Skating selection committee up late Saturday night.
Polina Edmunds, 15, from San Jose, finished second at 193.63. Mirai Nagasu, rebounding from a series of setbacks on and off the ice since finishing fourth at the 2010 Olympic Games as a 16-year-old, was third at 190.74.
"It's been quite a roller coaster ride since the Olympic (year) nationals and I have to say that it's been a really emotional year for me," said Nagasu, who has been without a coach since the fall.
Which leaves Wagner in fourth at 182.74 and her Olympic dreams in the hands of selection committee that is not obligated to name Saturday's top three finishers to the Olympic team. The three Olympic spots will be announced Sunday morning at 9 a.m. PST.
"Obviously I am more than ready to become an Olympian," Wagner, 22, said. "Going to the Olympics, that's icing on top of the cake, getting to the Olympics, that's the hard part. So I know if I'm chosen to be on that team then those performances, it's not what's it's going to be like in Sochi. But it's just this ... you can't really understand how it's going feel unless you are out there."
As the selection committee tries to make sense of it they are faced with this scenario: do they send an inexperienced high school sophomore and a skater who has been wildly inconsistent the last three years and leave at home the most internationally successful American woman skater in nearly a decade? Just last month, Wagner won a bronze medal at the ISU Grand Prix Final.
Or does the committee decide that Sochi would be a great experience for Edmunds, who in 2018 could be a gold medal contender, and that for all her baggage, Nagasu, now, 20 once again stepped up when the pressure was greatest? Case closed.
"I think that Ashley is a phenomenal skater and I think that she's done great this year," Edmunds said. "But everyone has been working hard for this nationals and everyone has a dream to go to the Sochi Olympics and again tonight was the night to prove yourself and I think we all did the best we could tonight and the results are the results and nobody can really change that."
Nagasu also made her pitch for Sochi.
"The only thing I can brag about now is that I'm the only person with Olympic experience," she said. "So I know how hard it can get."
Four years ago Nagasu edged Wagner for the final spot on the U.S. team for the Vancouver Games by just four points, a heartbreak that continued to haunt Saturday night.
"They called my name and I felt like lead, I felt heavy, I felt nervous," said Wagner, fifth at the 2013 Worlds. "I felt so calm in that warmup, but my mom always said it's a snapshot in time. It's not what you do in the warmup, it's what you do when all eyes are on you. So I think I was prepared for these nationals, I just think mentally that it's just one of the hardest competitions out there because we have such a deep field of ladies and nobody's safe. Two-time national champion, I'm not safe."
She fell just moments into her program on the second half of what was supposed to be a triple flip/triple toeloop.
She seemed to regroup only to fall on a triple loop jump late in the program. Wagner then had a questionable landing on the final jump of triple flip/double toeloop/double toeloop combination.
"It's embarrassing, it's embarrassing as two-time national champion to put out a performance like that," Wagner said. "So, I did what I did and now we'll see what happens after this. Luckily I had a decent season, that definitely helps my case but other than that I'm embarrassed for that program."
She shook her head as if to shake herself out a bad dream, a four-year nightmare that would haunt her for at least one more night.
"I'm just in shock that that's what I put out at nationals," she said. "And I'm embarrassed that I get so much media attention for the skater that I am and then that skater doesn't even show up on the day that it counts."
(c)2014 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
Visit The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) at www.ocregister.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services