Wagner sees a cultural hesitancy in the United States, compared with Russia, to train young girls to achieve great early success at the risk of injury and burnout in their teenage years.
The Russian system values centralized training, in which many top skaters train together and push one another every day.
“In Moscow, it’s more like a factory of production,” said Rafael Arutyunyan, who coaches Wagner and worked for many years in Russia.
Japanese, South Korean and Russian women have won gold at the last three Winter Games. And many experts predict that Russian teenagers will win two of the three available medals at the 2018 Olympics.
That is, if the Russians can show that they have passed rigorous drug screenings to gain entry because of a state-supported doping scandal at the 2014 Winter Games in Russia that compelled the International Olympic Committee to ban the country as a team but allow cleared athletes to compete.
At 26, Wagner, a three-time national champion, has reached what she calls a “make it or break it” moment for her Olympic career after finishing seventh in the 2014 singles competition.
Ideally, many fans of figure skating would like to see a mature skater like Wagner win a medal, said Lipinski, who is now a commentator for NBC. She described Wagner as someone who has “had a lot of life experiences” and “is a beautiful artist and storyteller.”
But artistry jousts eternally with athleticism in skating. And with the old 6.0 system gone since 2004, there are fewer moments available for purely artistic interludes. Now, champions must gobble up points like Pac-Man pellets, even if a score of say, 212, means little to many spectators except the boiling point of water.
The Russians have expertly adapted to the current system, which awards a specific number of points for everything from jumps and spins to footwork and musical interpretation. The base value of a triple Axel, for instance, is 8.5 points. Some Russian girls as young as 10 or 11 can perform the most difficult jumps, Arutyunyan, the coach, said. And many jumps are loaded into the second half of routines, racking up bonus points for stamina.
Evgenia Medvedeva, 18, a two-time world champion and a heavy favorite to win Olympic gold if she recovers from a foot injury, completes some jumps with one arm extended above her head to increase the degree of difficulty. And she balances her jumping with a growing emotional and artistic maturity.
Her training partner, Alina Zagitova, 15, who in December won the Grand Prix final, an important competition leading into the Olympics, places all of her jumps in the second half of her four-minute free skate.
While Wagner is probably the best American hope for a medal at the Olympics, Lipinski said on a recent teleconference call, “realistically, technically, she’s behind what’s happening in Russia.”
Russian officials have long rewarded novice and junior skaters for attempting difficult elements like three-revolution jumps, done alone or in combination, even if they fail.
Because young American skaters were only recently pushed to reach such high technical levels, Lipinski said, their growth has “sort of been stagnant.”
U.S. Figure Skating, the national governing body, introduced a program in 2015 to enhance the jumping skills of novices. Still, the Americans are playing catch-up. At the recent junior Grand Prix final, five of the six participants in the women’s competition were from Russia.
Although young skaters are extremely flexible and jumping is easier before the body fills out, some Russian teenagers have faced sobering trade-offs for their success.
Adelina Sotnikova, who won the 2014 Olympics at age 17, is not currently competing, citing injury. Yulia Lipnitskaya, who won gold in the team event for Russia as a 15-year-old in 2014, retired this year, saying she has battled anorexia. And Medvedeva broke a bone in her right foot.
Wagner said there was a “huge culture difference” between the United States and Russia in the approach to developing young skaters. While Americans have been known to push their children at an early age in many sports, Wagner said some skaters’ parents might be reluctant to accept that “my kid is going to give up their life at 5, 6, 7 for something we don’t know if it’s going to pay off or not.”
Asked if the shooting-star careers of some Russians had been detrimental to the sport, Wagner said on a teleconference call, “When you are skating that intensely from such a young age, of course these girls are going to get burned out.”
Explaining how she had sustained her own interest in skating, Wagner said, “I wasn’t overloaded with it.”
Still, she acknowledged that the current system was tailor made “for a 16-, 17-year-old Russian girl who is technically strong.”
Going forward, Lipinski said, it may be difficult to find a wonderfully artistic skater in her 20s who can also perform the technical requirements needed to be a champion.
“At the same time, this is a sport,” Lipinski said. “It’s in the Olympics for a reason. You want to keep pushing the bar technically.”