"To be a 26-year-old woman on the ice is an achievement in this sport because you're working against a lot of different things," she tells PEOPLE

By Adam Carlson
November 02, 2017 11:07 AM
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It’s less than 100 days until the Winter Olympics in Pyeonchang, South Korea — and a moment Ashley Wagner has been dreaming about for two decades.

At 26, she’s already five years older than Michelle Kwan was the last time she won an Olympic medal, and 11 years older than Tara Lipinski was when she won gold — but the skating veteran is not letting her age be a deterrent.

“To be a 26-year-old woman on the ice is an achievement in this sport because you’re working against a lot of different things,” she tells PEOPLE. “If I got to Pyeongchang, I will be the oldest U.S. female figure skating athlete since 1924 or something like that — so I think it really goes to show that my longevity is something that’s very, very rare. And I’m really proud of that, and it’s because I’m so freakin’ stubborn.”

Wagner, a three-time national champion and an Olympic medalist in 2014, fully intends to compete in February’s Winter Games in South Korea. (The Olympic team will be finalized after the U.S. Figure Skating Championships wrap up on Jan. 7 in San Jose, California.)

The road to Pyeongchang has not been short or easy. It has not been 100 percent fun. But she never let that stop her.

“I think that if anyone tells you that they’ve been that hungry every single day of their career, they’re not being honest,” Wagner tells PEOPLE. “You have days where you don’t want to train. I mean, I’ve been skating for 22 years — this absolutely gets old. But it’s one of those things where I set a goal when I was 6, 7 years old and I owe it to that little girl … to see this through.”

The 2018 Games, beginning on Feb. 8, would actually be Wagner’s third Olympic experience. She was a first alternate at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, although that achievement was overshadowed by disappointment: She fell while attempting a triple lutz at the national championships that year, only a month before the Games, coming in third.

At the 2011 national championships, she fared even worse and came in sixth.

But Wagner — an Army daughter who started skating when she was 5 years old and quickly found comfort in the familiarity of the ice during frequent moves — channeled her setbacks into even more drive to succeed.

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Ashley Wagner
| Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty

As The New York Times detailed, she told herself she would win the 2012 national championship or leave the sport. To make that dream come true, she moved to Southern California, changed coaches and worked (temporarily) at a clothing store.

“She said, ‘I don’t want to stay in the sport too long,’ ” Wagner’s mother told the Times in 2014. “So she made a commitment. She took responsibility, financially and individually, for her own skating. She knew she wasn’t going to make it selling Lucky jeans.”

Wagner surpassed the challenge she had set for herself — and then some — winning the national championship in 2012, 2013 and again in 2015. In 2016, she won silver at the world championship, breaking a 10-year dry streak of medals for American female skaters.

In between, she earned a bronze medal at the team-skating event at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Now, she tells PEOPLE, “I think that as soon as I started treating skating like a job — you can be in love with your job, but as soon as I treated it like a job and a business … that’s when I really felt like I transformed as an athlete.”

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Ashley Wagner at the 2014 Winter Olympics, in Sochi, Russia
| Credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty
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Ashley Wagner in 2016

Serious as Wagner can be, she is just as self-aware.

“I have never been the most talented skater, I am not the most natural skater,” she says. “But I’m a really hard-working skater and I think that from 2010 to where I am now, I’m such a vastly different athlete, a different person, and I’ve learned so much over the years.”

Wagner says she gets huge support from her family, as well as from fellow skater Adam Rippon, her “best friend and travel partner and training mate.”

She also name-checks her mom, Melissa James, for her enduring encouragement.

“It’s been [my mom’s] Olympic journey since I was 5 years old and starting on the ice,” Wagner says. “So this is just as much hers as it is mine, and having her support means the world.”

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And, yes, Wagner knows you probably remember her meme-worthy reaction after competing in Russia in 2014.

While she would love the focus to be solely on her skating come February, should she make it to South Korea she says that infamous moment was “so true to the person that I am: I wear my heart on my sleeve and what you see is what you get with me.”

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Ashley Wagner in 2007
| Credit: Dave Winter / Icon Sport/Getty

With so much skating still to do, there’s not much time to talk about what will come after, although Wagner happily acknowledges she has made time in her life for things that aren’t on the ice.

What could be next? Maybe, she says, a future as a commentator.

“I think that I’ve always been interested by the other side of the camera and what goes on and how people tell athletes’ stories,” she says.

So how would she summarize her story?

“I think I’m the girl who gave up everything to make this crazy thing happen,” she says. “I left my house at 18, I took over my own career and put everything on the line for a dream that I wanted to be my own and I’m here at 26 and hopefully I can make big things happen for myself.

“But I think people should know that if you really, really love what you do and you don’t listen to all the ‘no’s and all the negativity, you can make just about anything happen. That’s why I’m sitting here.”

The Winter Olympics begin February 8. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.