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Former Olympian and Self-Proclaimed ‘Confidence Queen’ is Showing Others How to Redefine Life After Sport

At the age of two, I stepped foot on the ice for the first time, and it changed my life. For the next 15 years, I was a dedicated figure skater putting in over 30 hours a week at ice rinks throughout the Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia areas. Like many, my sport became my life, my passion, my joy, and even my purpose. It made me feel special. My coaches parented me, enforcing discipline and perseverance, and my teammates were family, providing relationships that made the tough times and the losses worth it. 

So, when I finally decided to find out what life was like without skating as I entered college, I felt a bit lost. This, I know, is something many former athletes — no matter what sport or level — have had to navigate. 

But this story isn’t about me. It’s about a decorated Olympian who, through her own journey becoming a retired figure skater, has been a role model for those going through this similar chapter of life. 

From her spunky programs and powerful performance skills, Ashley Wagner has always been a force of nature in the figure skating world. She is a three-time U.S. national champion, the 2016 World silver medalist, and a 2014 Olympic bronze medalist. After facing a few setbacks and an ankle injury, she decided to retire from competitive skating in 2019. 

Since then, she has used her voice and presence on social media to help raise many important conversations and empower young women. As an athlete, I looked up to her. In retirement, I now look up to her even more. 

Body image

One thing she has taught me and many other athletes who no longer compete or compete at the level they once did is how to learn to love your body in this different stage of life. Wagner, who posed for ESPN’s 2017 Body Issue, has often spoken of her struggles with body confidence, particularly in a very weight-obsessed sport. Many athletes, especially those performing at an elite level, know how outside voices and even our own thoughts can impact the way we feel about ourselves and our bodies. When you stop training at the level you once did, your body can change — and it doesn’t have to be a bad thing! 
Wagner uses Instagram — with her bio reading, “Self-Loving, Body-Positive Confidence Queen” — to be a fierce advocate for body positivity. She frequently posts photos of her post-competition body to show young girls and women of all ages that you can love yourself and your body no matter what size you are. She has even partnered with Arctic Chill Hard Seltzer to raise funds for the Movemeant Foundation, a national charity that works to make fitness accessible, fun and empowering for young women, while shifting the conversation away from weight loss and typical beauty standards to one of body positivity.

Mental health

Recently, many athletes have come forward with their mental health issues, and Wagner has contributed to that conversation in a meaningful way. In previous years, Wagner has been very transparent about some of her mental health struggles. After placing fourth at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and being left off the 2018 Winter Olympics team, she said she fell “into a very severe depression” — revealing her emotions on her Instagram story for 2018’s World Mental Health Day.
Wagner has become a role model for not shying away from her mental health struggles, and instead, owning her story to help heal. For instance, in August 2019, she went public about her experience of being sexually assaulted in an emotional first-person account in USA Today. Unfortunately, her experience is still something many other women and athletes are having to deal with, including the hundreds of gymnasts who have spoken out about their assaults by ​​former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. Wagner — by having the strength to raise her voice — is helping bring awareness of these issues to other women and promoting an atmosphere of strength, healing and therapy. Talking about your feelings is not a weakness. It makes you strong, and it’s how you move forward.

Identity Formation – More than just an athlete

Without purpose. That’s how I felt when I stopped skating. In her Instagram post on Oct. 20, 2021, Wagner wrote, “I stopped skating and was terrified. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.” This is a feeling I know deeply, and I’m sure others can also resonate with it. Finding out who you are outside of what you’ve always defined yourself as is extremely difficult. In another Instagram post on July 31, 2021, she writes, “if you’re someone who doesn’t know what’s coming next, if you feel lost, that’s okay.” She goes on to explain how “time does the most healing.” Wager taught me to trust the process. Ultimately, everyone is on their own timeline. 

Being able to take a moment to sit in the discomfort of not knowing who you are is something to be proud of and, I think, is a vital part of processing who you want to become. For Wagner, as she has said online, it didn’t happen overnight. Now 30 years old, she is a student at Northeastern University, studying psychology, and has said she hopes to build a therapy practice focusing on trauma-related issues and working with the LGBTQ+ community. She has also created her own business, a power skating class called “Skate and Sculpt”, for retired skaters that she recently announced would be going nationwide. She’s not just Ashley Wagner: competitive figure skater. She’s also Ashley Wagner: student, business owner, dog and cat mom, and of course, confidence queen, among many other things. 

Wagner has shown how to have a healthy, fun relationship with a sport after retirement. But, by also posting her life openly and honestly on Instagram, she has also shown the process of starting a new chapter in life, focused on building new relationships and finding different hobbies that spark joy and excitement.

If there’s one thing to take away from this article, it’s this: Your sport is what you do or what you did. It’s not who you are. As a human being, having a diverse set of hobbies, interests, and values is important. This will take time. Try new things, some of which you’ll love or hate or be surprised about. Don’t let fear stop you. Athletic careers end at some point. So, embrace the unique opportunity to redefine yourself using the strength, determination, and passion you developed as an athlete. 

Ashley Wagner continues to be a confident, fearless, positive role model for me — as I’m sure for many others. Tune in to more of her experiences and life lessons by checking out her Instagram.

Madison Rudolf

George Mason University '22

Madison is currently a senior at George Mason University studying Communication with a concentration in Journalism and a minor in Sustainability Studies. Madison enjoys using journalism as an outlet to write and inform about the environment. She is also a Strategic Communications Intern for Mason's Office of Communications and Marketing writing stories for the Mason website and The George newsletter. Outside of school, Madison enjoys running, reading, and exploring Washington, D.C.