ADLER, Russia -- Upon touching down at the Sochi International Airport earlier this month, figure skating coach Rafael Arutyunyan turned to Ashley Wagner.
"Well, welcome to Russia," Arutyunyan said.
It was his way of telling Wagner to expect the unexpected.
Her Russian adventure now almost over, the two-time U.S. champion returns to Orange County next week with an Olympic medal, as the only American skater to have turned in three (or even two) clean programs at these Games and with her eye already on the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
A month after an embarrassing and mistake-filled fourth place at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships that left her participation in the Sochi Games in doubt, Wagner more than justified her presence here and her place among the world's top skaters, validating the U.S. Figure Skating selection committee's decision with three solid performances, including a momentum shifting short program in the team competition that was crucial to the U.S. earning the bronze medal.
Off the ice, she was just as strong, continuing as a staunch opponent of Russia's anti-LGBT laws and emerging as an equally vocal critic of her sport's judging system and lack of accountability.
"I've come from a bawling, scared, 22-year-old girl, to a tough, proud, happy woman coming home to the U.S. with a bronze medal and three clean performances," Wagner said.
The month in Europe, however, wasn't a total success. Wagner and the U.S. women failed to end an American ladies medal-less streak at the Olympics and World championships that extends back to 2006 and is the longest such skid since before World War II. With Wagner finishing seventh overall in the women's competition Thursday night, Gracie Gold, 18, the U.S. champion, fourth and Polina Edmunds ninth, the United States also failed for the first time since the 1936 Games to come home with a medal in the men's, women's or pairs event.
Wagner also experienced first hand the unpredictability -- or unreliability -- of Olympic judging, something Arutyunyan was alluding to with his welcome greeting.
"This Olympics was for myself and no one else. It wasn't for the judges, wasn't for USFSA. I stepped out on the ice and I skated for myself and mostly to prove to myself that I belonged here," said Wagner, who just missed making the 2010 Olympic team. "Three clean performances for any competition that's not too shabby. I think this is the best I've skated the entire season."
Wagner questioned all three of her scores at the Games and she and several former Olympic skaters and coaches were especially surprised by both her short program and free skate marks in the women's competition Wednesday and Thursday.
Wagner received an overall score of 193.20 and a free-skate mark of 127.99. Both were substantially lower than Russia's Yulia Lipnitskaya, 15, whose error-filled routine included an ugly fall, but still received a 135.34 free-skate mark for an overall score of 200.57, good enough for fifth place.
"People don't want to watch sport when you watch people fall down and somehow score above some who goes clean," Wagner said.
"Yeah, I feel gypped. I do but when you say that, it always has such a bitter connotation and I'm not bitter. No one can take away what I accomplished here. The scoring doesn't reflect how I think I did. But it's a judgmental sport. It's what they see and who might have changed their opinion."
The scores didn't diminish Wagner's feeling about her programs.
"I was so, so, so happy with that performance," Wagner said. "You know, I really wasn't focused on the scores here. They've been a bit all over the place, so really this performance was for myself and not so much focusing on what the judges would say.
"This competition has been full of surprises I think. I was a little surprised with the short as well as the long. But you know I came into this event knowing pretty well how that was going to go.
"I knew that I pretty much wouldn't be able to predict where I would be scored in this competition. So thinking about what I was up against wasn't going to help at all. This is for me and proving to myself that I belonged here."
And she is committed to working her way up within that elite group at the top of world-class skating. Wagner will compete at the World Championships next month in Japan but is already thinking about the 2018 Games. She will continue to train in Southern California with Arutyunyan, who took over the primary duties of coaching Wagner after John Nicks decided last spring he no longer wanted to travel to competitions.
"As soon as I landed in Sochi I knew I was signed on for the next four years," Wagner said. "I think with working with Raf, (what) he's been able to do with me in six months and to see how he trains me in one month, I can't even begin to imagine what a year with him would be like technically and what four years could be like.
"I want to start setting myself up. So you know it's the changing of the guards now and I'm ready to be there."
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