Ashley Wagner: "I want to redefine what skating can be"

July 19, 2022
By Anna Kellar
Photos © Ashley Wagner, Debi Oreste, Anna Bertoloni

In the four years since Ashley Wagner retired from competitive skating, the 2016 World silver medalist and three-time US champion has added a lot of roles: tv commentator and host, student (she's a senior studying psychology at Northeastern University), advocate for sexual abuse survivors, coach, and entrepreneur. In all those roles, she is using her experiences in skating, good and bad, to make her sport a healthier and more inclusive place. I had the opportunity to participate in her "Skate & Sculpt" class last December and saw her renewed enthusiasm for skating firsthand. When we talked in May, she was preparing to launch "Skate & Sculpt" nationwide summer tour.

How did the idea for "Skate & Sculpt" come about?

"Skate & Sculpt" was born from a place of healing. I retired after 2018 - well, I never really retired but I was done. If I'm being frank, I was burnt out, I was really bitter and I hated skating. I didn't care if I never stepped on the ice again. It took a lot of time to process that, and then somewhere in the pandemic - this was a pandemic baby - I was thinking that it was kind of sad that I felt the way I did about skating. I didn't want to feel that way, because even though I had a lot of heartbreak throughout my career, I also had a lot of wonderful moments, made friendships that will be in my life forever. It was important to me to redefine my relationship to the ice.
I was talking with some girlfriends who also skated about how we missed those old-school 90s power skating classes, where you just got a good workout. So, on a whim I decided to rent some ice, put it out on Instagram. I think our first class had about eleven people, and then it started to grow from there.
The whole point of this is to create a relationship with the ice that serves the skater. Figure skating in general has this culture where you are always trying to improve, and that's great, but that also can mean never being good enough, which was my experience on the ice. I wanted to create a space where people can just show up at whatever skill level they are on that day, or in that chapter of their career, and be good enough and have a space on the ice that is just for them.
It's been really empowering for me to see just how needed it is. When you retire from skating, whether that's at twelve years old, or you skate through college, or high school, there isn't a place for you to go after that. I'd get on the sessions I used to train on, and I'd feel wildly in the way, uncomfortable, dodging little kids training, and I didn't want to do that. I didn't feel like I belonged on public ice either. ["Skate & Sculpt"] is a space that is just for the athletes that need it.

What's been surprising as the idea developed from those initial sessions?

Just how many people feel the way that I do. It's made me a part of a community I didn't think I'd have access to. I've always seen myself as just a skater, it doesn't matter what you do, if you get on the ice, you are a skater. We're all equal. It feels really good to be able to create a community where everyone is an equal, and it's surprised me it's happened a lot faster than I thought it would.

At the session I did, it was impressive that there were forty people on the ice. I skate in that rink twice a week and I'd never seen most of those people before. It was great to see people rejoining the space.

That's my favorite part. To see how long it's been for some of these athletes and to get them reconnected to a part of themselves that they thought they would never have again. A lot of people come up to me after class, and say they thought they would never skate again, and now they are regulars in my Boston class.

What have you had to learn about teaching and coaching to do this? Did you have previous coaching experience?

I learned so much about coaching from this class. Previously, I'd taught mostly kids who were competitive and trying to work their way up, and so you have to stay on top of them, and make sure they are getting their work done. The reasons for why they are skating are so different from the reasons why people in these classes are skating. I have to speak differently. It's not about accountability but celebrating whatever you are doing. When I'm teaching a fifteen-year-old novice lady or senior lady my job is to make sure that everything they are doing is as good as they can possibly do. It's a different style of coaching and I find this much more satisfying. I've cut way back on coaching younger kids, where it's not as fulfilling and where it's like I'm part of the problem. This is what I want to give to skating.

I'm curious about why you created a strengthening and cardio class, and not just an edge class. Where does the "Sculpt" part of it come in, especially given body image issues in skating?

Originally, I wanted to call it "Boots and Glutes" and my brother said "Absolutely not! You cannot call it that." Honestly, I just like the alliteration, and I think of it more about your blade sculpting out the ice, and less about your body. The class is all about body positivity, celebrating you for who you are and what you are doing, not what you look like. And I think if I can combine the idea of a figure skating fitness class with an ounce of body positivity, that's a win in my book.

In my experience, it's uncommon to have strength and conditioning classes that are accessible for a variety of skill levels and ages.

One thing that I think we've done really well with "Skate & Sculpt" is that we have different levels within each class, and every class is different. I don't know who is showing up and what level they are at. We always try to offer a base level, and then if you are feeling spicy, I'll give you an add-on and if you're not quite at that level yet, I give you a modification so that you can learn the skill set. I've been able to watch skaters get on the ice where I'm not entirely positive that they're going to be able to handle any of the backwards skating we do, and now they're handling rockers and counters like a pro. It's just about meeting people where they are at and boosting them up from there and giving them the skill sets so they can work through the class. It's a group of people who are largely pushed aside and that shouldn't be the case. Every skater deserves some attention.

Why do you think so many people age out of skating? It's not just at the elite level that it happens. Clearly, it's a common experience.

It may be a little better now, since there are different routes that you can take in the sport, but when I was growing up there was one track, a track to the elite level, and if you made it, great, if not, hang up your skates and move on. I think we've got remnants of that mentality, that your skating is not valuable unless you are a national champion. It makes people feel small, that what they are doing doesn't matter, and so they stop skating. Skating was not always healthy for me, so I want to redefine what skating can be for people. Systematically, skating has a huge problem with inclusivity and making people feel welcome. If the large organizations in charge aren't going to do anything about it, I at least have a voice and I can do my part.

There's been a lot of discussion about raising the age limit for Seniors. Would making that change at the elite level help?

I think it would help. I also think it's putting a band-aid over a much larger problem. The sport still highly values the Olympic track. Now it's cool that there is a theater on ice track, and that adult skating has become a lot more popular, so there are more options, but the solutions we have on the table right now... yeah, I think the age limit needs to be raised. I think it's going to help with longevity in the sport and will increase the importance of supporting athletes' bodies, instead of just getting the most out of them while they are still a prepubescent tween and then when they go through puberty, they are done. I think it will help. Is it the only solution we need to put in place? No.

"Skate & Sculpt" is an entrepreneurial project, and I know you were also working on a podcast at one point. Are you drawn to that sort of thing, building your own project and your own brand?

I genuinely never thought I was going to be an entrepreneur. It is so overwhelming. I am now in charge of a team of two other people, it feels like the blind leading the blind. I think I have always navigated the world in my own way. A natural path for athletes who reach the level I have is to go on to shows, and from there go on to coach. I did a little bit of coaching, and I didn't love it, so this is my own way of finding something that I love to do, and I'm not settling. This is what I'm passionate about.

Would you do more commentary or tv roles if you got the opportunity?

Oh, absolutely. I think that there is room for all the shoes I'd like to wear. But being able to work the Olympics and being part of a show (Ashley cohosted the Olympic Ice show on NBC Sports during the Beijing Olympics - ed.) where we get a little bit more room to talk about what is going on and have an opinion, that was such a great opportunity for me. And it felt like an important opportunity, given everything that happened at the Olympics. Definitely something I'd like to do more.

I was impressed with how you struck a balance on the show between being fun and entertaining, and talking in a real way about the alleged doping. You showed empathy for the skater, and put the blame on the coaches and federation, which I think helped shape how others in the American media covered it as well.

It hit so close to home, and it's so easy for people to point fingers, but it's not ever the individual. It highlighted the system we have in this sport, put the issue on a silver platter, and was an opportunity to really talk and push for change.

How can federations, the ISU, etc. be held accountable for how the sport can put athletes in harm's way?

I think at the end of the day, the only way to get the sport as a whole and the federations involved to change is to make them realize it is going to start to financially impact them. If your fanbase loses trust in the integrity of what you are doing, that is the end of the sport. And I love skating, I love what it gave me and the moments it gives are so special, and I don't want that to happen. So hopefully this was a wakeup call. I fear that it is not, if I'm being realistic. But at this point, if this isn't some push for change, I don't know what will make a difference.

What do you think coaches, or parents, or younger skaters themselves, should do to prepare themselves or their athletes for a fulfilling journey through skating or into their life, whatever that path looks like?

There is a way to be training and working toward an elite path, while still acknowledging that a kid is a kid, that a person is a person, and that it is just skating. I took my sport very seriously, but the reason that I made it all the way to 27-28, at a competitive level, was because it was just skating to me. I had a life outside, and I had a supportive group outside the sport. And for anyone navigating this world now, it's important to acknowledge all those things, and allow kids be kids, and if they want to go do a butt spin on the ice, fine let them do that, and then they can go work on their double axel some more. But if you let it be fun for them, they are probably going to stick around a lot longer and have a more fulfilling career.

I recently read Karina Manta's book, "On Top of Glass", and she mentioned something similar about the importance of balancing skating with life off the ice. When she started remembering who she was as a person, it was also when her skating got better. And that idea runs counter to so much of the messaging about discipline and conventional wisdom in skating.

You have to get something out of skating in your own way, beyond medals or accolades. If you aren't enjoying skating for things beyond winning, you are going to get burnt out really quickly, because you aren't going to win every single event. You have to have other things that the sport gives you, as well as other things in your life, if you want to be successful.

How does mental health training need to be incorporated into skating?

We need to expand mental health beyond sports psychology. And we need to be giving athletes tools to deal with the anxiety and pressure that comes with training, and the ups and the downs. Most sports psychology that I have interacted with is a skill set or tools to use for your training - which is great. But we also need to start addressing the person as a whole. When I was in my last couple of years of skating, I was wildly unhappy, I was severely depressed, to the point where it scared me, and I eventually sought out help. If you don't start treating these athletes like human beings, and addressing their wellbeing as a whole, the sport will continue to crumble. That is why mental health needs to include skaters knowing to ask for help outside of what is good for their sport, but what is good for them.

I heard Kiira Korpi recently say that self-confidence is one of the most important things to instill in young skaters, to have resilience so that a mistake isn't the end of the world, and you exist beyond your results.

Yeah, and I think that in addition to encouraging athletes to advocate more for themselves, there is a way to advocate respectfully to a coach. It's allowed to be a conversation, and you might not always get your way when it comes to a coaching relationship, but allowing the athletes to stick up for themselves will also help the culture we have in figure skating, and the darker sides of the sport that we don't want to acknowledge. But if you help athletes from an early age to feel like they can advocate for themselves and stick up for their needs, it will create healthier skaters down the road.

It's important to know what healthy relationships look like, and to know that other authority figures would recognize a problem for what it is when a skater speaks up.

And giving coaches the tools to understand that not every skater should be taught the same way. I thrived with very stern, strict, male personalities and that is the kind of athlete I was. I needed that kind of energy to get my work done. That doesn't mean that every single athlete needs that, and so helping the coaches to also have the mental health awareness and skills to identify what each different individual needs will create a healthier generation of skaters.

I want to ask about how social media fits into this, positively or negatively. It can allow you to tell your own story on your own terms, but also seems like it can be a source of pressure on an athlete - or for you as you are going through the transitions in your career, if there is a pressure to keep up that image.

I have an incredible team and I work with someone - her name is Julia - and she helps me to run my social media. I have a lot of anxiety about social media. Having been on the positive end, and on the other end where I get a lot of negative backlash, I don't love social media, but I know it is an important tool. I learned how to ask for help and got some help myself and together Julia and I work on pushing out "Skate & Sculpt" and the positive community we created out into the Instagram and TikTok world.

It seems like especially for folks talking about body positivity, there can be a pressure to be positive all the time on social media.

I try to strike a balance to show the good and the bad, so that if you are not having a great day, potentially sharing that might help someone else feel a little bit more seen and recognized. So, with my own social media I try to make sure I am telling the whole story, and not just highlighting the good.

It's really striking that you are not just pointing out the problems in skating's culture but also trying to find ways to create the alternatives you want to see.

I believe if you point out a problem, there is value to that, because speaking up about issues is always going to be relevant. But I'm in a position where I not only have a platform to speak up, but I can do something about it, and it would feel wildly irresponsible to just speak up and not take some action. That is the way I have navigated a lot of issues in my life, and for the most part that has steered me to true north. I try to follow my heart and what feels right to me, unapologetically.

To learn more about "Skate & Sculpt", visit skateandsculpt.com




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