Thank You, Ashley Wagner: Skating Needs More Outspoken Women

Critics say her unfiltered comments and facial expressions are bad for the sport. As a former figure skater, I say she's simply being human—just like plenty of other athletes in her discipline.
Bernat Armangue / AP

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.

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Amanda Palleschi is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in the National Journal, Government Executive and USA Today.

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