The Real Skating Winner Isn't Ashley Wagner, It's Her Sponsors

Former two-time defending U.S. Champion Ashley Wagner is absolutely thrilled with the United States Figure Skating federation and their controversial decision to send her instead of Mirai Nagasu to the Olympics. You know who's more thrilled? Her sponsors. 

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Former two-time U.S. Champion Ashley Wagner is absolutely thrilled with the United States Figure Skating federation and its controversial decision to send her instead of Mirai Nagasu to the Olympics. You know who's more thrilled? Her sponsors.

Thanks to the USFS, CoverGirl, Nike, P&G, Hilton, Pandora, and BP are set for the Olympics and have an athlete competing in one of the fortnight's premier sports. NBC won't have to re-shoot its Olympic commercials, which already heavily feature Wagner. And if Sochi follows the way the last four Olympics have, we'll probably see a lot more of Wagner in the next few weeks even if her results don't warrant it. At the national championship last weekend, Nagasu placed third and beat Wagner by eight points (huge in skating). Grace Gold and Polina Edmunds, the gold and silver medalists, beat her by even bigger margins.

For the last few years, it's seemed as if the powers that be had already decided who Americans should be rooting for or interested in— usually a good-looking, cute young female athlete. It was almost two years ago that we couldn't stop talking about the honey-hued virgin Lolo Jones, who commanded more think pieces, headlines, and magazine covers than people who actually medaled (some of her track and field teammates publicly complained). Before Jones, we were supposed to root for Lindsey Vonn (who pulled out of this year's Games), to the chagrin of Julia Mancuso, the most decorated American female alpine skier. And before Vonn it was gymnast Shawn Johnson who was supposed to be America's sweetheart, not eventual all-around champion Nastia Liukin in Beijing.

This year it's Wagner's turn. And the chances of her winning gold or possibly even a medal are slim. This isn't an opinion, it's an observation that Wagner herself shares. Wagner, unlike the top female skaters in the field — most notable Kim Yu-Na — doesn't have a solid triple-triple combination. It's what separates the skating wheat from the chaff. And skaters like Kim (below) have been landing them for five years:

Wagner hasn't. Here's her attempt from this past weekend's national championships:

"I, myself, don’t think I’m talented enough to get on the podium without a triple-triple," Wagner said this past October. "I’m just trying to be as realistic about the triple-triple as I possibly can be," Wagner said.

What's more worrisome, is that Wagner isn't clutch. She may even be the opposite. "In every major event where Wagner has competed, she has faltered. When Wagner is under pressure, she does not perform well. Isn’t the Olympics a pressure-packed event?" The Examiner explains.

The unavoidable question you have with the USFS is why they chose Wagner over Nagasu, who soundly beat Wagner. And further: does their explanation make sense?

What the USFS will tell you is that they look at a body of work in a sport where a body of work has no bearing on performance. What matters is skating is if someone can keep it together for six to seven minutes. The jumps skaters landed cleanly three weeks ago, or even five minutes ago don't matter when Olympic gold is on the line. Wagner knows this better than anyone: she's had the most successful skating season of any U.S. woman and flopped when it supposedly mattered. 

Skating is like a college class where your final is worth your entire grade. That allows for joyous stories like Tara Lipinski to show up out of nowhere and claim gold. It also makes for heartbreak, like Michelle Kwan being so very good for so very long, except for the one night where she wasn't good enough. 

Bottom line: there's really no point in winning a US Women's Figure Skating national championship other than bragging rights. Further evidence that the national championship doesn't matter: two sources told USA Today that Wagner was making the team, "even if she's 10th." 

And that's led some to believe that Wagner's body of work must have included her corporate sponsors and marketability. The Wall Street Journal's Jeff Yang explained:

She’s the embodiment of the “golden girl” the media has extolled when they’ve waxed poetic about idealized ice queens of the past, from Norway’s Sonja Henie to East Germany’s Katarina Witt, a marketer’s dream who’s already signed up tent-pole sponsors like Nike, Pandora Jewelry and CoverGirl, which assessed her Teutonic beauty as being worthy of serving as one of their global “faces.”

And The Examiner's Gabriela Guzman explained:

NBC lost one of its U.S. Olympic stars when Lindsey Vonn opted out of the Olympics earlier this month ... The TV network, who currently holds U.S. broadcasting rights to the Olympics, was not about to let their other Olympic hopeful, Ashley Wagner slip by either. 

And if you take the pulse of skating fans, the feeling is that there United States skating delegation is now a lot more "All American":

"And did anyone else happen to notice how “all-American” the ladies’ delegation looks? Three young blondes…"

And that the fix for Wagner was always in the works:

I think Ashley making the team wasn’t really negotiable at this point. I am just so, so, so sad for Mirai because she looked so happy last night and she did so well

Ultimately, this hoopla, these sponsors, and NBC's bright spotlight isn't at all Wagner's fault. She didn't pick the team. And she, just like us, will never really know how much or how little her marketability helped USFS association come to its decision.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.