Earlier this week, Phillip Mills made headlines in the skating world when he announced that he was parting company with Ashley Wagner as coach and choreographer. With the Olympics just 10 months away, timing is surely of the essence as Wagner attempts to get into Olympic gear.
Skaters and coaches split all the time. It is nothing new. It shouldn’t even raise eyebrows, yet this split does for several reasons. Upon first reading, Mills’ words sound innocuous and gracious enough. Upon a second reading, it is clear that they are loaded with innuendo and subtext.
Phillip Mills has been a part of Ashley Wagner’s coaching team since she moved to train with John Nicks after the 2011 United States Figure Skating Championships. On paper, John Nicks has always been known as her head coach. Prior to this year’s event, Phillip Mills made comments in press conferences that he played a large role in the training of Ashley Wagner. John Nicks indicated that he was thinking of retiring after spending a lifetime in the sport. Mills indicated that he had been training Wagner’s programs and keeping track of her percentages. His comments indicated that he was far more than a mere secondary coach. Though this shouldn’t have been surprising given that Nicks has gone in and out of retirement in the past and likely doesn’t desire to be coaching full time, it now raises questions about Wagner’s coaching arrangement moving forward.
Mills included getting “Ashley to skate like I knew she could at the World Team Trophy,” in his tweet. There is subtle innuendo that Ashley may not be the most self-driven skater in training in that comment. After a life spent moving around the country due to a military father, Ashley has continued this nomadic pattern with a series of coaching changes. While they were often excused due to her father’s profession in the past, Wagner now has to fight the stigma of being a ‘coach hopper.’ Coaching changes happen for all sorts of reasons, yet there are typically reasons when a skater experiences numerous coaching changes. And those reasons are rarely ever positive.
Skaters and coaches need a level of trust in order to succeed. It is understandable that there could be friction in Team Wagner. After years of being the self-proclaimed “almost girl” in the United States, Wagner missed two opportunities to stand on the medal rostrum at the World Championships. Plagued by two-footed landings in the past, Wagner now struggles with executing the technical content needed to win. With a bevy of young talent from around the world nipping at her heels, the last two seasons may have been her best two opportunities.
Phillip Mills indicated that the chasm occurred over choreography. He believes his work needs to be kept in its original form, as he does not wish to make changes to the work of others. While this raises all sorts of questions about what actually happened, the reality is troubling for Wagner’s prospects. One of the benefits of having a coach who is also a choreographer, is that there are daily touch ups and reinforcements of the choreography. Prior to their work together, Wagner was not known as an artistic skater. Together, Mills and Wagner created a unique identity on the ice. The daily work on her style and skating did wonders for her artistic transformation.
As Ashley Wagner retools, it is important that she maintains her unique qualities. Though the temptation may be to follow what the A-List skaters are doing and go to Lori Nichol, David Wilson or Marina Zueva for choreography, Wagner may be best suited by using a choreographer like Sarah Kawahara or Shae-Lynn Bourne. Both Bourne and Kawahara excel with skaters who aren’t traditionally balletic and they lack top female clientele. Being the second or third-best lady working with a choreographer may not be beneficial to inspiring a winning Olympic program. For Wagner, this decision is an important one.
With John Nicks failing to travel to the World Team Trophy, finding a second coach may also prove to be an important decision. If Wagner is to stay in the Los Angeles area, it is quite possible that she could wind up taking from Rafael Artunian, the coach of Adam Rippon (one of Wagner’s closest friends in the skating world.)
It is imperative for Ashley to emerge strong from her summer training and make a statement. Wagner already fights the perception that she is losing ground to Gracie Gold. Judges are human. Perception is everything. In a close competition, 0.25 for components and +/- 1 for GOE matter determining the outcome. With the Olympics just around the corner, skaters need to give judges every reason for them to believe in their success and award them the benefit of the doubt. If there is anyone who knows how important it is to be on the right side of a close finish, it may just be the “almost girl.”