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This is an exclusive online story from the 2017 edition of ESPN Magazine, on newsstands July 7. sign up today!
a relentless training regimen. fighting through concussions. the ability to withstand hundreds of pounds of force slamming against your body. If that sounds more like what it takes to be an NFL linebacker than a figure skater, then you don’t know Ashley Wagner. After posing for this year’s body issue, the 26-year-old Olympian sat down with reporter Morty Ain to explain just how much strength and athleticism it takes to make all those triple axes look “effortless” and combat the image of figure skaters as porcelain dolls this is how wagner describes his body and his sport, in his own words:
Reading: Ashley wagner body issue photo
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I think figure skating has this stereotype as a sport for little girls: that we’re these pretty porcelain dolls. I don’t think people think much of the athleticism that the sport involves. but that’s totally understandable because people only see the finished product. our job is to take something that is ridiculously technical and difficult and make it look perfect, effortless and seamless. I think a lot of people would be very surprised at the kind of training we have to do. I’m on the ice 6 days a week, I physically train 3-4 hours a day on the ice, sometimes off the ice. to 2 hours a day. this sport is my life. I feel strongly that I am an athlete through and through. I am a fierce and hungry competitor. I’m stubborn, I’m a workaholic, I’m obsessed with being as perfect as possible.
I grew up as a total tomboy; I wasn’t in it for the spandex and the sparkles. what really attracted me to this sport was the speed and the feeling of flow on the ice: it’s like you’re flying. I grew up in a military family. my dad was tough as nails, but you know what? he made me hard as nails. if something went wrong or if I had a bad day, I was never allowed to feel sorry for myself. my dad just told me not to be a coward. It may not sound like the best approach for parents [laughs], but that’s what most kids need to hear these days.
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skating is a very strange balance: you have to be as strong as you physically can but as light as you can. so you have to be very smart about where you get your strength because everything you have in your body you’re going to have to airlift. so even though we may not be seen as very muscular athletes, we are very strong for our weight.
When we descend from these jumps, we land with something like 500 pounds per square inch of force. it’s a ridiculous amount of force. most of our muscular strength is concentrated in the glutes, core, and lower back muscles, all of which will keep you in the correct position. you have to have the strength to push against that force so you can properly land the jump.
I’m in the air for 0.7 seconds, but I’m aware enough that if a jump doesn’t work, I know where to put my hands and how I can get out of it safely. At this point, I’ve been falling in love professionally for 21 years [laughs]. not too intimidating at this point. probably doesn’t make as much sense on one of my butt cheeks for falling on that butt cheek all the time. But over the years, you learn the proper way to fall, you learn to cushion yourself and use your arms to absorb the impact.
“longevity is rare in this sport” physically, skating suits a very young body type. Every day we hit our joints and our bodies against the ice. In heavy training season, there isn’t a day that I wake up and I’m ready to go. you do not have a feeling of full recovery. but I think as an elite athlete, that’s the feeling that gets you hooked: waking up and having stiff, sore muscles and having to go in and start over. It’s that routine that I think a lot of elite athletes become obsessed with.
I’m one of the oldest [female] athletes in figure skating right now. longevity is very rare in this sport. Sometimes I feel like I’m the locker room mom. it looks like most figure skaters are at their best between 15 and 18, maybe 20 if you’re stretching it. at my first olympics, i was 22 or 23, so i was already past my “figure skating prime” in quotes.
my idol growing up was tara lipinski. i read an interview where she and johnny [weir] talked about different athletes and what they expected from them after sochi. and I read that she was surprised that I was still competing and that she thought she would retire me. there is nothing more disheartening than seeing your idol write you off. but in that moment, she reminded me that if she’s thinking that, then I’m sure a lot of other people are thinking that. that was something that really pushed me to become an even stronger athlete so I could get my silver medal [at the world figure skating championships in 2016].
These younger girls are doing triple-triple combos, but at the end of the day you don’t need to deal with the hips of a 26-year-old, and frankly, a woman’s body, against a boy’s body. I think that’s why it’s easier for a 17 year old than it is for me, but I really think it’s more of a mindset and you just have to change the game once you grow up.
You want to be as small as possible for the jumps you’re doing. that’s just the reality of sport, it’s the reality of gravity. in skating, there is a lot of pressure to be small. when I was starting out in the sport, I was competing against a predominantly Japanese field at the international level. so every competition you go to, you look at these women and they’re so small and tiny naturally, and I have some very strong Norwegian genes [laughs]! I was so aware of my weight and my shape and the fact that you could look at me and see that my arms had muscles, my legs had a lot of muscle. at the time, I was just obsessed with working out. I loved food too much to give it up [laughs], so I cycled and cycled, bicycle, bicycle, bicycle, bicycle. I would just end up wearing myself out. my body wasn’t made to be that size, it just never will be, so I was just breaking my body.
Now, I think my body makes me look like a woman on ice. and I think a lot of people would rather see a woman on the ice than a girl. If I’m skating a love story, I feel like it’s much more believable if I look like a 25-year-old woman who’s been in love before compared to a 14-year-old girl.
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“I felt trapped in my body” I have had about five concussions. in 2009 i got a concussion from a really bad fall where i fell on my back and my neck snapped and my head hit the ice. my body began to close in on me completely. It was bad enough that he had tremors all over his body, he could barely walk, he couldn’t even talk through them. I would have heart palpitations. that was the most traumatic thing my body has ever had to go through. and the Olympic trials were approaching, that moment when you don’t know if your season is going to be possible is terrifying. my body was literally doing everything it could to work against me. I felt trapped in my body. I was experiencing these symptoms for probably 3 months, and for 3 months no one could tell me what was wrong and I was getting no relief. I was worried that this was a lifestyle I would have to adapt to.
I went to a neurologist, I went to a cardiologist, I went to just about any -ologist you can think of. I finally met a chiropractor, and he suggested I take a look at my neck. what ended up happening was that the vertebra in my neck was actually pressing on my spinal cord. the vertebra would come loose, press on my spinal cord and literally short-circuit my entire body, including my heart. I had to go through a couple of months of really painful adjustments so that I could strengthen my neck enough to help get the vertebra to where it needed to be.
the concussions definitely rewired my brain in the way it processes information. my short-term memory isn’t that amazing; talking to me is a bit like talking to dory from “finding nemo” [laughs]. It really affected me the way I learn the programs because you have to memorize this choreography and the choreography is very complicated. So for me, retraining my brain to be able to learn choreography and be able to remember it, that’s probably my biggest challenge.
I’ve also become ridiculously dyslexic; when I say dyslexic, I mean more about my body. my choreographer has to be by my side physically doing the moves with me. that helps me process it better, and after that it’s repetition, repetition. I’ll film it, so you can see it. As long as I can see it, I’ll see it over and over until I start to feel it.
I forget what my next move is when I’m acting all the time! I got to the point where I’m in the middle of the ice during the competition and I had five seconds of panic because I couldn’t remember my program and I had to make a little bit of stuff up. at that point you just freestyle and then try not to panic, stay calm and it will come back to you.
When I first started skating, the idea was that you fall down, hit your head, dust yourself off, get up and try again. but I feel like the sports world is taking concussions a lot more seriously, and I think that mindset is slowly starting to creep into figure skating. in the past, openly admitting “hey, I’ve had a lot of concussions, I have balance issues, my memory isn’t the same; I still want to go to the Olympics, so try not to take that into consideration!” you just didn’t do that . but I think now, because concussions are something people take more seriously, I think athletes feel more comfortable talking about them.
I have worked to strengthen my little muscles in my neck, and that has helped me so that when I fall, I have the strength in my neck to hold it up as I fall backwards. A lot of times in figure skating, whiplash is what gives you a concussion more than anything else. You don’t even have to hit your head on the ice to get a concussion, so having that strength in your neck has helped me a lot in that aspect of my life.
for more body interviews: aj andrews | javier baez | julian edelmann | ezekiel elliot | kirstie-ennis | julie and zach ertz | malakai-fekitoa | gus kenworthy | nneka ogwumike | isaiah thomas | joe thornton and brent burns | united states women’s national hockey team | Ashley Wagner | michelle water | novlene williams-mills | carolina wozniacki
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