ADLER, Russia — Rafael Arutunian knew the signs.
He had seen them in Ashley Wagner exactly four weeks earlier.
So in the final moments before Wagner’s short program in the Olympic Games team competition Saturday night, Arutunian reached across the Iceberg Skating Palace’s sideboards and placed both of her hands in his.
“Calm down,” Arutunian said. “Breathe it out. Be here.”
After gathering herself, Wagner turned and skated to center ice for a performance that both helped propel the United States back into the medal hunt in the inaugural Olympic Games team figure skating event and re-established Wagner as a medal contender in next week’s women’s competition.
“And that’s what I needed to get me out of that mindset of ‘Oh, this is the Olympics,’” Wagner said.
In an Olympic debut — four often-trying years in the making — Wagner delivered a performance of redemption and validation, securing a fourth-place finish in the women’s short program. Coupled with Meryl Davis and Charlie White’s victory in the short dance earlier Saturday, it put the U.S. into third place in the team standings heading into the event’s final day of competition Sunday.
Russia leads with 37 points, followed by Canada 32, the U.S. with 27 and Japan with 24.
Wagner, skating to a version of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” put the disappointment of narrowly not making the Olympic team in 2010 and the controversy surrounding her inclusion on the 2014 version of Team USA behind her with Saturday’s skate. Wagner was fourth at last month’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships after an error-filled long program. But the two-time U.S. champion was still selected to Team USA hours later over third-place finisher Mirai Nagasu, the federation citing a selection criteria that included a number of international and domestic competitions over the previous two seasons for their decision.
“It was on my mind especially with the media frenzy over the past couple of weeks,” Wagner said, “that I needed to prove to myself and everybody else that has even doubted my belonging here in the slightest that I’m here, I’m here to be competitive, get used to it.”
Wagner acknowledged that controversy around her selection bothered her.
“The first week it kind of really hurt me especially because they were attacking my character more than my skating abilities,” she said. “But then I realized that people who have something mean to say tend to shout the loudest. And I have had an overwhelming amount of support from the skating community and Mirai herself, which is really all that I needed. And beyond that I just knew my skating would do the talking and I didn’t need to say anything.”
If there was a disappointment for Wagner and the Americans it was her 63.10 overall score, which seemed several points low to Wagner and the U.S. delegation.
Yulia Lipnitskaya, the Russian 15-year-old who is already being compared to 1994 Olympic champion Oksana Baiul, won the women’s short much to the approval of a raucous hometown crowd, posting a 72.9 score. Italy’s Carolina Kostner is second at 70.84 with Japan’s Mao Asada third at 64.07 despite an early fall.
“I know roughly when I skate a good program where the scores should add up,” Wagner said. “To score that low was disappointing for me but, honestly, that performance was more for myself and mentally getting past these past couple of weeks and I wanted to do everything I could to help out the team and I really feel that I delivered on that part.”