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Olympic figure skating controversy? Ashley Wagner makes team despite falls

Ashley Wagner was named the US Olympic team Sunday despite a devastating performance in the US Figure Skating Championships Saturday.

On one hand, it’s no surprise that Ashley Wagner was named to the American Olympic team Sunday. After all, she was without question America‘s best figure woman figure skater this season. In fact, she was the only American woman even to qualify for the Grand Prix Finals last month, which brought together the world’s best figure skaters.

Then, Saturday night happened, and the announcement Sunday that Wagner will be going to Sochi came with at least some small dose of controversy.

What happened Saturday night was what often happens in the world of figure skating: a full-scale implosion. By the end of her performance in the free skate at the US Figure Skating Championships, even Wagner’s sequins appeared to be crying. Four years after disappointingly missing the Olympic team by one place, Wagner appeared to have done it again.

Her performance was a collection of cringe-worthy moments including two falls and a bad stumble. With three Olympic slots available, Wagner finished fourth – and not a particularly close fourth, eight points behind Mirai Nagasu. Her Olympic dreams appeared, one gain, dashed.

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“I just got ready, and then they called my name … I felt like lead,” she said after the skate. “I mean, I’m just in shock that that’s what I put out at nationals, 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.”

This weekend’s championships, however, was not technically a qualifier. Usually, the top finishers at a US national championships head to an Olympics in an Olympic year, but not always. And not this year.

The members of the US Figure Skating committee that chooses the Olympic team have discretion, and Sunday they used it, taking Wagner instead of one of the three girls who finished above her Saturday. 

That girl was never going to be Gracie Gold, who won the US championship with a personal best total score of 211.69. The number was a statement that announced Gold as a legitimate medal contender in Sochi and capped months of work with legendary coach Frank Carroll, who has guided Evan Lysacek and Michelle Kwan to Olympic medals. 

Nor was it likely to be Polina Edmunds, the 15-year-old who finished second Saturday in what was, remarkably, her first senior event. “She is the future of skating in America,” Carroll said of Edmunds after the short program Thursday night. Edmunds’s own coach has even had the daring to compare Edmunds to Tara Lipinski, the 15-year-old who snatched a gold medal from Kwan at the Nagano Olympics in 1998.

US Figure Skating was not going to leave its future at home on the couch.

So that meant the decision came down to Wagner or Saturday’s third-place finisher, Nagasu. It was, in many ways, a choice between two opposites. Wagner was, in many ways, the safe choice. She had the résumé. She had the results on the Grand Prix circuit this year. She had (before Saturday) the consistency.

But here was Nagasu, who after years of inconsistency, had emerged with the lovely skate she had often promised but rarely delivered. It was reminiscent of 2010, when Nagasu put together two perfect performances to finish a surprising fourth in Vancouver.

Should US Figure Skating go with the surer thing or the gamer? The year-long résumé or the result on the one night that mattered most?

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“Oh, that’s going to be a rough one,” said Carroll Saturday night, according to several media accounts. “How can you deny Mirai after that performance tonight? How do you deny Wagner after all she’s done? Thank God it’s not me” making the decision.

Now, the decision has been made. Nagasu’s performance was denied. After all she’s done, Wagner was rewarded.

It’s hard to say it was the wrong decision. But it’s also hard to say it was the right one.