She staggered onto the 2014 Olympic team, justifiably earning a place under rules that allowed selection as something of a career achievement award. Her performance in Sochi would be remembered less for its quality or finish — seventh — than the look of utter disgust over her scores as the U.S. won a bronze medal in the team event.
Through it all, Ashley Wagner remained feisty and disarmingly honest, a welcome departure in a sport where almost everyone falls mute over worries about being judged for everything but how they skate.
She never backed away from expressing her support for the LGBTQ community in a country that had passed anti-gay legislation. She was unafraid to blast the judging after the women's free skate.
Nearly a year later, seeking to reclaim the U.S. title she won in 2012 and 2013, Wagner is ready to consign her poor fourth at 2014 nationals to the trash bin of history.
“Was that the way I wanted to get onto the Olympic team? Absolutely not,” Wagner said. “Yes, it was a rough nationals, but no, I don't regret it, and no, it doesn't haunt me.”
She even joked about it after a strong winning skate in Thursday night's short program at the U.S. championships.
“It's great to be standing in front of you guys and not having to explain myself,” Wagner told the media.
Instead, Wagner was explaining why she upped the difficulty of her program by adding the first triple lutz-triple toe combination of her career. Even flawed by a two-footed landing on the second jump, it was a statement move.
“It's a stepping-stone to become one of the top women internationally,” she said.
Wagner is in the same position as a year ago. She is all but assured a place on the U.S. team for the 2015 World Championships in March — as is reigning U.S. champion Gracie Gold, barring a total implosion by one or both this week.
Watering down her short program combination to triple-double, Gold finished second (67.02) to Wagner (72.04). The third 2014 Olympian, Polina Edmunds, is just behind Gold (66.04) going into Saturday night's final, Mirai Nagasu a close fourth (65.28).
Wagner and Gold have been the top two U.S. women internationally over this season and last, which counts significantly in the selection criteria for the world team. Wagner, 23, reinforced her position by breaking into the Russian leaders at last month's Grand Prix Final in Barcelona.
She rallied from last after the short program to pass two of the four young Russians (then ages 16 to 18) and win the bronze medal.
“I'm viciously competitive,” she said. “I don't like to get beat. I don't like to get beat by girls. That [free skate] program in Barcelona made me feel like I am being taken seriously as an athlete, not just some decoration in the sport going to hang around to the bitter end.”
Wagner no longer may be haunted by her poor showing at last year's nationals, but she seemed unable to shake its effects and skate at her best the rest of the season. It ended with a seventh at worlds without the top two Olympic finishers.
“I am very ready to lead U.S. figure skating into worlds and on to the next Olympic Games,” Wagner said. “I think it starts with me getting my national title back.”
In the pairs short program, Alexa Scimeca and her fiance, Chris Knierim, who train in Colorado, got the highest score (74.01) ever at nationals.
Follow Phil Hersh on Twitter @olyphil