BOSTON — The stakes couldn’t have been higher at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships held at TD Garden this weekend, where skaters weren’t just competing for the national title, but also for a ticket to next month’s Winter Olympics.
Just 30 seconds into her performance, two-time national champion Ashley Wagner stumbled and fell. The audience gasped, and then she fell again.
At the end of her routine, Wagner, turned to her mom and mouthed, “I’m sorry.” The 22-year-old Wagner said the nerves crushed her.
“As soon as they called my name, my legs turned to lead,” she said. “And I’ll admit it, I didn’t pull through at the national championships when I felt the pressure.”
Skating officials chose to believe in her anyway, and named her to the U.S. Olympic team.
Wagner knows she danced with danger this past weekend, but she says there’s actually less on the line for her on the global stage in Sochi.
“Going into the Olympics it will be a totally different type of pressure because it’s icing on top of the cake,” she said. “I’m at the Olympics, I’ve made it. I can really just let myself skate instead of having to worry about whether or not I’m going to literally watch my dreams fall apart.”
Typically, whoever wins gold, silver and bronze at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships goes on to compete in the Olympics. But Wagner was selected, meaning bronze medalist Mirai Nagasu wasn’t.
It was a controversial decision that has only been made a handful of times before, like when Nancy Kerrigan was whacked in the knee before the 1994 Olympics. But in the past, the exceptions were for injuries, not because a favored skater botched her performance.
Pat St. Peter, president of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, defended the decision. She says the championships are not the Olympic qualifiers. Instead, the selection committee looks at an athlete’s overall body of work during the last year.
“If you look at Ashley Wagner’s record and performance, she’s got the top credentials of any of our female athletes,” St. Peter said.
The other two ladies chosen were 15-year-old Polina Edmunds and 18-year-old Massachusetts native Gracie Gold.
But none of these women are favorites to medal in Sochi, according to experts like E.M. Swift, a former Sports Illustrated writer who covered the Olympics.
“Our top skaters are still a little bit, to my eye, unpolished, not as refined as the real great champions of yesteryear,” Swift said.
The days of Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan are long gone. At the last Winter Games, for the first time since 1964, no American woman figure skater won a medal.
As the popular image of the ice princess has melted, ice dancing has developed into American’s best bet for gold. Meryl Davis and Charlie White from Michigan are the reigning World Champions. They posted a perfect score over the weekend as they performed to Scheherazade and captured their 6th national title.
Despite their record, they’ll have to compete with history. To date, no American team has ever won an Olympic gold medal in ice dancing. But White is optimistic.
“Obviously we’re going into these games with very high expectations,” he said. “We feel like we’ve put ourselves in a really great position to come home with the gold medal, so that’s what we’re going to go try to do.”
There’s also great expectations for two local athletes — Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir from the Skating Club of Boston. The duo won a gold medal in the pairs competition as they skated to James Bond.
Even though Castelli fell on the quadruple throw, the pair is planning to try it again in Sochi. If they land, they think will give them an edge.
Since 1988, the U.S. has failed to medal in the pairs competition, but Shnapir thinks they have a fighting chance.
“It’s going to be a challenge, mentally, but we’ve been doing this so long together. And I don’t have any doubt in my mind that, you know, we’re going to have a great time out there and get our job done,” he said.
And if they do slip up, there is one more hope for a medal — the new team figure skating event. This will include men’s skaters Jeremy Abbott and Jason Brown, who aren’t favored to make the podium in the individual competition. The team event is debuting at the Sochi games.