Ashley Wagner will be remembered well after the torch is blown out at the Sochi Olympics, but the 22-year-old American figure skater is no America’s sweetheart. Wagner has been polarizing since before the Games began. Once there, the two-time U.S. National Champion made fewer headlines with her performances than with her meme-worthy faces, mouthed-under-breath remarks at her scores, and her less-than-shy comments about the disputed result of the women’s competition.
“People need to be held accountable,” she told reporters after Russia's Adelina Sotnikova was awarded her controversial gold medal. “They need to get rid of anonymous judging. There are many changes that need to come to this sport if we want a fan base."
Wagner’s vocal scoffing at her own marks might not have been best way to curry favor with the judges, potential sponsors, and the gods of Good Sportsmanship. At Bustle, Kelsea Stahler writes that Wagner’s outspoken remarks and “indignant faces” were “disappointing” and concludes such behavior is “bad for figure skating.”
But I spent a better part of my formative years as a competitive (but not very talented) figure skater, and I can say with certainty that plenty of real-life young women working their way through the sport’s ranks are just like Ashley Wagner. They can be brash, opinionated, feisty, and have some attitude. Why? Because they’re regular adolescents and young adults. Olympic observers may call her a poor sport; I say she’s an athlete daring to be a human in a sport that asks its female athletes to be camel-spinning Stepford wives.
In women’s figure skating, there is no room for loudly emotive Richard Shermans or even lovable bad boys like Bode Miller. If you want to be beloved as a female skater on the international stage, you must behave more like Peyton Manning. You can argue that Wagner’s comments are bad for figure skating, maybe; but you can’t argue that a female athlete who dares to act, well, human isn’t a little bit good for women.
The female figure skater-as-princess trope is as old as the sport itself. Much of it is due to the sport’s close kinesthetic relationship with ballet. And then we have figure skating’s favorite princess-and-the-pauper narrative: Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. Harding herself summed it up best in the recent ESPN 30 for 30 special, commemorating 20 years since the scandal that put Olympic figure skating on the tabloid map: “She’s a princess and I’m a pile of crap.”
That Kerrigan also came from a humble, blue-collar background and later made some less-than-sterling comments on a hot mic at the 1994 Olympics was no matter. The ink on her fairytale was already dry. Nancy spoke, moved, and acted with the grace of Princess Diana when it counted.
But at my suburban Minneapolis figure skating club, we didn’t always. We were regular teens, and most of us would never make it on the national competitive circuit, let alone the Olympics. But we devoted our young lives, including early mornings, weekends and most days after school to the sport just like the champions you see on TV. We wore sequin-studded costumes that evoked ballerinas and ballrooms, too. And just like Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold, we poured our hearts and newly active hormones into the sport. Some girls—often the best ones—kicked the ice and the boards when they fell for the fifth time in practice. Some threw plastic skate guards across locker rooms, and stormed out of lessons in a huff. Some mouthed off to coaches and made facial expressions not unlike Ashley Wagner’s. And there were tears. Oh, were there tears. (Full disclosure: I was not, at the time, above engaging in such behaviors.)
There were also exclusive cliques; one even anointed its members with custom-made polar-fleece jackets. There were sleepovers and hot tub games of Truth or Dare and never-have-I-ever. There were provocative nicknames and suggestive interpretive dances, catcalls for your best friends when they took to the ice during a show to perform. Why? Because we were young women growing up on a cold, unforgiving surface, on one-inch steel blades. Because we loved the sport.
Certainly, plenty of the girls were polite and spiral sequence-sweet in their comportment—those were the girls who were most respected and who probably got the most babysitting jobs from the skating parents with younger children. We might not have been Olympians, but the retrograde rewarding of “princess”-ness was still subtly present. Much like Olympic audiences, the parents and coaches preferred us to be—yes, that loaded word—“ladylike.” There was a saying around the rink whenever a girl reached the highest United States Figure Skating Level, the “senior” level: “She looks like a Senior lady.”
But in 2014, what does it mean to be a lady, anyway? In the workplace, young women are told to “lean in,” speak their minds, and speak up about injustices. In figure skating, it still takes canned statements and stifled opinions to be America’s sweetheart.
“To be completely honest, this sport needs fans and needs people who want to watch it,” Wagner told reporters. “People do not want to watch a sport where they see someone skate lights out and they can’t depend on that person to be the one who pulls through.”
Keep being honest, Ashley Wagner. Because people also don’t want to watch a sport whose athletes don’t reflect the humanity of the very real women who practice it every day.