SOCHI, Russia -- Ashley Wagner knew she had something to prove when entering the Iceberg Sports Palace on Saturday night for the ladies' short program of the new team figure skating competition.

She wasn't afraid to say it after a Wagner-esque performance that helped put the United States in contention to win a bronze medal heading into Sunday's long program finale.

Wagner, 22, performed with extreme confidence in finishing fourth in her segment on a night the resurgent Russians looked like the world's best skating nation.

To those who doubted the two-time national champion after she finished fourth a month ago at the U.S. Olympic trials, hear this:

"I'm here," Wagner said. "I'm here to compete. Get used to it."

USA’s Ashley Wagner performs for the Team Ladies Short Program at the Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi, Russia on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014.  (Nhat V.
USA's Ashley Wagner performs for the Team Ladies Short Program at the Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi, Russia on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) ( Nhat V. Meyer )

Compete she did because if Wagner is anything she is fearless on the ice. She just missed qualifying for the 2010 Olympics despite perhaps the best long program of the field at the U.S. championships four years ago.

That disappointment spurred her to become America's top competitor until last month when stumbling and bumbling her way across the ice at the trials in Boston.

U.S. officials used a vague discretion rule to pick Wagner over Mirai Nagasu, who was third in Boston. The rationale is Wagner's body of work over the past four years deserved the reward.

But the decision led to an outburst of negative publicity about the method of selecting an Olympic team. The argument weighed on Wagner's mind as she made her Olympic debut in front of a pro-Russian audience.


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"It was more about proving to myself that I could get past that competition," Wagner said of Boston,

The Southern California-based skater looked sharp as soon as the music started, with precise moves and strong jumps. Wagner made a slight error on her big triple jump combination when two-footing the second landing. But it wasn't a major error by any stretch of the imagination.

"It you two-foot a landing, that's a good way to do it," said Michelle Kwan, one of history's greatest skaters.

About the only disappointment came when Wagner saw her score of 63.10 points, good for fourth place among the 10 competitors. Her smile quickly turned to a frown.

"I know roughly when I skate a good program where the score should end up," Wagner said. "So, yeah to score that low was very disappointing for me. I wanted to do everything I could to help out the team, and I really feel that I delivered on that part."

No one questioned the assessment.

She now departs Russia to prepare for the ladies' event Feb. 19-20. U.S. champion Gracie Gold will make her Olympic debut in the long program Sunday, as will Jason Brown for the men. Meryl Davis and Charlie Davis will return for the free dance after winning the short program by three points over Canadian rivals Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.

The team competition didn't include South Korea and reigning Olympic champion Yuna Kim, the favorite to be the first woman to win back-to-back gold medals since Katarina Witt did it in 1984 and '88.

But a 15-year-old Russian by the name of Yulia Lipnitskaya looked like the next big star on ice, winning the short program with 72.90 points over Italy's polished veteran Carolina Kostner and Japan's Mao Asada.

Like Lipnitskaya, the Russian pairs team of Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov dominated their segment with 135.09 points. Canada finished second in the pairs but well behind the Russians.

The Americans' overall performance inspired the Boston-based pairs team of Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir in the only long program contested Saturday.

They finished fourth among the five teams with a season-best score of 117.94.

"We wanted to ride the wave of energy for the team for the rest of the night," said Shnapir, a Russian emigre from Moscow. "We wanted to build off that energy."

The United States heads into the final three long programs a distant 13 points behind first-place Russia. Canada is second, six points back.

It's how it probably will end Sunday when they hand out the medals.

Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.