From Delaware Online by Martin Frank
WILMINGTON -- For the past several years, figure skating in the state of Delaware has been about Johnny Weir and Kimmie Meissner.
Each won their share of honors, including national championships for both and a world championship for Meissner, and both earned spots on the U.S. team for the 2006 Winter Olympics.
Both have moved on over the past year or so, with Weir moving to northern New Jersey and Meissner heading to Florida.
But the cupboard, so to speak, is not bare. Ashley Wagner, a 17-year-old from Alexandria, Va., moved to Delaware last summer to train with Priscilla Hill, Weir's former coach, at the Skating Club of Wilmington.
She placed fourth at last month's U.S. Figure Skating Championships, and is headed to the World Junior Championships in Bulgaria beginning Feb. 23. And she is among several women skaters who have a chance to make the U.S. Olympic team next year.
"That is definitely the goal," Wagner said. "I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get there. But it's also scary because all my life, it seemed so far in the distance. Now it's only a year away."
Wagner has done a lot to fulfill her goal. Wagner, her mother Melissa and younger brother Austin, who finished fifth in the novice competition, rented an apartment in Brandywine Hundred last summer so Wagner could train with Hill. She had left her longtime coach Shirley Hughes earlier in the summer.
Wagner takes online classes from her high school in Virginia, where she's a senior maintaining honor-level grades.
The Wagners head back to Virginia each weekend, where Wagner's father, Eric, lives.
Traveling long distances, however, is nothing new for Wagner. She's the daughter of a career military man. She was born in Germany and has moved nine times, including stints in Alaska, California, Washington, Kansas and Virginia.
She began skating at the age of 5 in Alaska, and was hooked a few years later when she watched former University of Delaware skater Tara Lipinski win the Olympic gold medal in 1998. In fact, her father chose an assignment in Kansas over Hawaii so she could continue skating.
"There weren't too many places to skate in Hawaii," Wagner said with a laugh.
Wagner trains about five hours a day during the week, then takes Pilates after her daily skating sessions.
It is during training where Hill sees the similarities with Weir, whom she coached for several years.
"When Johnny was at his best he was training non-stop, and I see that with Ashley," Hill said. "You see that with every elite athlete. That energy is so unbelievable and Ashley definitely has that."
The similarities end there, however.
Weir was, and is, known for his eccentricities and his outrageous comments, which have on occasion gotten him in trouble with the U.S. Figure Skating Association.
Wagner, meanwhile, just skates.
She showed her mental fortitude at the national championships, when she was 12th after the short program.
"It was a disaster," said Wagner, who had finished third the year before and was considered one of the favorites to medal this year. "I was a little shocked. I was going for a triple-triple, and when it didn't happen, I lost my focus for the rest of the program."
Wagner recovered to win the long program, which shot her all the way up to fourth. While it wasn't good enough to get a spot on the podium or the World Championship team, it did get her a spot on the World Junior team and gave her a tremendous boost of confidence.
"It showed me that when things are at the ultimate low point, I can pull myself out of it," Wagner said. "Granted, I never want to have to pull myself up like that again, but at least I know I can do it."
Added Hill: "She learned a lot about herself between the short and the long program. She learned to overcome her demons. In the long term, having to build back was very important to her, even more than if she had done two perfect programs."
But Wagner knows she can't have a slip like that next year at nationals.
The women's field is tremendously deep, as Wagner will compete for one of either two or three Olympic spots with national champion Alissa Czisny, runner up Rachel Flatt, third-place finisher Caroline Zhang and 2008 champion Mirai Nagasu.
There is also Meissner, who sat out nationals with a hip-flexor injury, and there are persistent rumors that past champions Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen might make one final bid for an Olympic spot as well.
"It'll be intense," Wagner said. "But I'm also looking forward to it."
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