Four years ago, she was odd woman out, 4 points from Olympus. Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu went to Vancouver, and Ashley Wagner watched from her couch.
“That was absolutely devastating for me,” said Wagner. “I came as close as I could to achieving my dream. That just wasn’t my day. I wasn’t good enough.”
What Wagner realizes now is that then was not her time.
“It was one of the worst and best things to happen to me to not make that team, because I do not think I was ready to be an Olympian,” she said. “I definitely wouldn’t have been in contention to be a top-placing lady. Because of that disappointment and downfall, I was able to become national champion.”
This week at TD Garden the 22-year-old Wagner will be bidding to become the first woman to win three consecutive US figure skating titles since Michelle Kwan claimed her eighth straight in 2005 and only the second to do it since Rosalynn Sumners in 1984. Even retaining her crown last year was a novelty after a carousel of champions who’d been one-and-done.
“It’s definitely something nice to have backing me,” Wagner said. “At the same time, I don’t think that it’s anything to fall back on. It’s nothing that guarantees me a spot on the Olympic team.
“I know that going into this national championships I’m going to have a lot of eyes on me as a two-time reigning champion. It comes with a different type of pressure.”
Wagner doesn’t have to keep her crown to earn one of the three spots on the team for next month’s Winter Games in Sochi. Nor does she have to go there as US champion in order to be a top contender. Evan Lysacek, who collected the men’s gold medal in 2010, didn’t win the national title that year.
The challenge for Wagner will be to make the Olympic podium, which the American women used to take for granted. Except for 1964, when the program was rebuilding from the 1961 plane crash that killed the entire team en route to the World Championships in Prague, at least one US female skater won a medal at every Games from 1952 through 2006, and seven times it was gold.
That tradition ended in Vancouver, where Nagasu and Flatt finished fourth and seventh. More significantly, the Americans have been blanked at the World Championships for the last seven years, their longest drought since 1937.
“US ladies skating is something that has been iconic in the sport’s history,” observed Wagner, who was fifth and fourth at the last two global events, “and I would love to get it back to that point.”
The sport now belongs to the Asians, who’ve won six of the last seven world crowns and the last two Olympic gold medals. The Russians, who qualified four teenagers for last month’s Grand Prix final, are on the rise.
Wagner has shown that she can compete with the world’s best. What she’s still working on is her sangfroid, which has been known to desert her when she bobbles on the big stage as she did at the Grand Prix final, where she let a fall on one jump mess up two more in the long program.
“It was a nice little reality check that I needed to remember how to skate scared,” said Wagner, who finished third behind Japan’s Mao Asada and Russia’s Julia Lipnitskaia.
Her biggest reality check came at the 2010 nationals in Spokane, where Wagner came agonizingly close to earning her Olympic ticket.
“It was really hard,” she recalled. “I couldn’t watch the opening ceremonies because that was one of the main things that I was looking forward to.”
Wagner wasn’t going to watch the skating, either.
“And then I said ‘You know what? This is something that I need to do,’ ” she said. “These girls, I’ve been competing with them, I came up with them, so at that point they weren’t my competitors. They were Team USA and that’s who I was cheering for.”
After being “the girl on the outside looking in,” Wagner concluded that she needed to take charge of her skating if wanted to make the Sochi team.
“I was at the perfect point in my career to have that happen to me,” she said, “because I was young enough that I had time to make changes and I was old enough to understand and be in control of the changes that I wanted to make.”
So after the following season Wagner moved from Delaware to California to work with coach John A.W. Nicks. For an Army brat who was born in Germany and moved seven times, a change of address was nothing unusual.
“It gives me an advantage because it’s easier for me to assimilate and get used to working with someone new because I always had a new coach because I was moving around so much,” Wagner said. “I’m used to adjusting and being in a new situation and having to get comfortable fast.”
Wagner promptly won the national title and just missed the podium at the World Championships. Then last year, after hanging onto the crown despite falling twice in the long program, Wagner did herself and her country a favor at the World Championships, where she and rookie Gracie Gold placed well enough to earn the US a third Olympic entry for Sochi.
“I was on the  team that lost a spot, so it wasn’t that I felt that it was for the US that I needed to do it,” Wagner said. “I felt I needed to redeem what I had kind of messed up. I needed to get it back.
“I focused more on getting that third spot back than on my own personal performances, but I achieved my main goal. And so we have three girls going and that’s an extra girl who doesn’t have to go through what I went through.”
What Wagner went through then made her what she is now.
“I’ve really matured and taken control of my skating because I have that ownership of my sport,” she said. “I feel like I’m a woman now, not just along for the ride.”
So when the 84-year-old Nicks told her that he couldn’t travel with her to competitions this season, Wagner promptly signed on with Rafael Arutyunyan, the technician who’d worked with Kwan.
“It wasn’t the time to mess around,” said Wagner, who’s still associated with Nicks as well. “This is my one opportunity.”
She wasn’t ready for her first five-ringed shot, and there probably won’t be another. Seven solid minutes on Causeway Street will earn Wagner seven more at Olympus and the chance to revive a star-spangled tradition that began with Tenley Albright.
“It would be huge to be able to get back onto that podium,” mused Wagner. “Pretty soon I think we’ll be able to get back to that idea that the US ladies champion can be world champion — and, who knows? — Olympic champion.”John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.