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Olympic figure skater Ashley Wagner is back on the ice, on her own terms

Olympic figure skater Ashley Wagner.Jordan Cowan

At age 30, Ashley Wagner is redefining retirement.

After training in Los Angeles for more than a decade, the Olympic bronze medalist had moved to Boston in 2019, and was working the touring circuit. But when the COVID-19 pandemic put live events on hold in 2020, Wagner didn’t have the nonstop grind of a skating career to lean on.

“All of my value and my identity was tied with a sport that I felt so negatively towards,” said Wagner, who had gone six months without stepping on the ice and became extremely depressed.

“I was really proud of Ashley Wagner the figure skater, but Ashley Wagner the human being, I didn’t feel any pride of accomplishment within that identity.”

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Wagner wanted to find a way to reclaim the skating she once loved so much, while also working with other former skaters who ultimately abandoned the pursuit. She started teaching a skating fitness class, Skate & Sculpt, for former skaters to get back on the ice. Primarily held at Charlestown’s Emmons Horrigan O’Neil Memorial Rink on Sunday evenings, the “old-school power skating” class has attracted everyone from college skating clubs to area moms. For Wagner, it’s a way to redefine her relationship with the sport that gave her so much joy, but also inflicted a lot of pain.

“I realized how angry I was about what I experienced, what had happened to me because of this sport, and I hated skating,” said Wagner. “I really hated it.”

Olympic figure skater Ashley Wagner teaches a new skating fitness class called Skate and Sculpt in Charlestown.Jordan Cowan

Wagner said she had felt the end of her amateur career creeping near for some time. Her last year of competing, she told herself before every event: “you only have to do this three more times. You only have to do this two more times.” But when she quietly retired, Wagner felt she was unable to move forward with her life. First, she said, she would have to confront her past.

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She began therapy, where she was diagnosed with PTSD and began to process her body image issues. Wagner said adults in her life gave her her first “fat talk” at age 8, when she was told she needed to stay slim for her career.

“I had a coach that would tell me that when I sat still and didn’t work out, that’s when women get soft and pretty. But he didn’t want me to be soft and pretty; I had to be an athlete,” said Wagner. “It’s really hard to not have your identity so closely tied to your weight.” She also had suffered at least eight concussions, leaving her brain to function differently than it used to. “I used to be such a numbers person. Sharp and quick, and my memory used to be incredible.” Now, she says, “it’s all applesauce up there.”

Wagner also faced the sexual trauma of her past. In 2019, she revealed she had been sexually assaulted by another figure skater, John Coughlin, who had previously completed suicide. Before she made the statement, Wagner went to United States Figure Skating and asked them to implement changes to make it safer for young skaters. She says the federation made those adjustments, but now feels like “they aren’t doing much to change the culture of the sport.”

“Boundaries need to be put into place,” said Wagner, who cites the “power imbalance” in pairs skating that places a much older male with a younger female. Because there’s not many male pairs skaters, she says there’s a pressure and competitive nature to guarantee the female athlete maintains her partner.

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As Wagner works to push for new changes to be implemented into the sport, she’s also exploring a new career. She’s now a junior at Northeastern, where she’s studying psychology. Her goal is to have her own therapy practice one day, focusing on trauma and working with the LGBTQIA+ community. But in the meantime, she’s enjoying teaching other former skaters, and hopes to expand Skate & Sculpt around the country. (So far, she’s taught classes in other cities like Portland and Denver, testing the waters.) After every class, Wagner says someone comes up to her with tears in their eyes, having rediscovered their love of skating years after hanging up their skates.

“I want people to be able to heal, or get the fun kind of fitness they want or just take time for themselves,” said Wagner. “There is nothing more freeing for me than being on the ice, and that sensation of power. The sport itself, I’m still working through.”