By Alissa de Carbonnel
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Controversially gifted a spot on the U.S. Olympic figure skating team despite an error-strewn performance at the national championships, Ashley Wagner decided only radical change would give her shot at the podium in Sochi.
Wagner ditched the problematic long program she had been rehearsing all season just weeks before the February 7-23 Sochi Olympics. She concedes making the decision so close to the Games was a massive gamble.
"It is absolutely crazy, insane that I decided to change it, but I am so passionate about what I do and so driven to get onto that Olympic podium, I just felt in my heart that program was not going to get me there," she said.
"It's a big risk."
Wagner's skate at nationals ended in tears, fourth place and a sleepless night while she prayed selectors would overlook her performance and select her for one of the three places.
Gracie Gold earned her Olympic ticket after capturing her first national title while 15-year-old sensation Polina Edmunds took second, locking up two of the three spots.
Mirai Nagasu, who was fourth at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, placed third and had looked set to grab the final position.
However, a nine-member panel awarded it to Wagner based on the two-time national champion's past performances.
"Seeing Sochi 2014 and the Olympic rings everywhere, you known, I kind of half to pinch myself," she said.
The last leg of her journey has not been easy. She has had to face down a storm of controversy over being picked and claw back her confidence to bring it to the Games.
Shakespeare's soft-hearted, tragic heroine in Sergei Prokofiev's score of Romeo and Juliet was not going to get her to the podium, she felt.
"The break up with Romeo and Juliet was when I fell twice at nationals. That was a really bad break up," she said.
So Wagner, against her coach's advice, revived an old program to composer Camille Saint-Saens' Samson and Delilah.
"This music makes me competitive, this is the one that kind of raises the hair on my arms, gets me excited to go out there and be vicious," Wagner said.
In the world of figure skating, artistry is only half the battle. Nailing the big jumps is what puts Japan's Mao Asada and South Korea's Kim Yuna at the top.
To help her stick the elusive triple-triple jumps when it counts, Wagner shed pounds and let coach Rafael Arutunian work her "to the point of exhaustion."
It paid off as she landed the difficult combination at her first practice session in Sochi.
"I can't sugarcoat it, that is really what is going to make or break this competition," Wagner bluntly told reporters.
(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Peter Rutherford)