Robin Wagner expects the third time to be just as charming as the first two. "I have to say I'm so honored to say this is my third Olympics," the Glen Cove-based figure skating coach said. "Even as a coach, I maybe take it for granted. I feel so honored and proud, and it's wonderful because I'll be representing a third different country - though my heart is always with the United States."
For this Olympic reprise, at the Vancouver Winter Games next month, Wagner is mentoring 20-year-old Elene Gedevanishvili, who is representing her native Georgia (the former Soviet republic, not the state; Gedevanishvili doesn't speak with a drawl).
In 2002, Wagner coached Long Island's Sarah Hughes, the gold medalist in Salt Lake City. In 2006, Wagner worked with Italy's Silvia Fontana, who came out of retirement at 29 to compete in her home country at the Turin Games.
Almost by accident, then, Wagner has become a coach without borders - hardly uncommon in the small world of figure skating - while sticking to a familiar commute. She trains Gedevanishvili, as she did Fontana, at the Hackensack, N.J., rink where Hughes put in most of her pre-Olympic work.
Each adventure for Wagner, has been drastically different. "With Sarah," she said, "I'd been training her so many years, it was really the culmination of both our careers. We climbed the ladder together. And though it was a big shock to so many people when she walked away with the gold [upsetting Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya], I wasn't so, so shocked. I didn't go in with the expectation of her being on the medal stand, but I knew there was a very good chance.
"Also, that was in the United States, and right after 9/11. The emotion was beyond anything I could ever feel again in my career."
Then, with Fontana: "I was dealing with someone who had been my coaching assistant [for a brief time after the 2002 Olympics]. It was a comeback adventure, a big stretch. And just the excitement of her making the Olympic team was rather extraordinary, and I knew if the Italian audience could see her, they'd fall in love with her. We wanted to get her the exposure and make the best of it. And now she's living part-time in Rome and has a skating clothes line and does shows with John [Zimmerman, her husband and former U.S. pairs Olympian]. Exactly what we hoped those Olympics would do for her."
Now, there is Gedevanishvili. Wagner remembered her from the Turin Games, when the then 16-year-old was in sixth place after an impressive short program but stumbled to 10th. She was training in Moscow at the time, but the political strains between Russia and Georgia resulted in Gedevanishvili's mother being deported.
Her daughter followed back to Georgia, then to the United States to resume training with relocated Russian Galina Zmievskaya, who coached 1994 Olympic champ Oksana Baiul. That didn't work out; Gedevanishvili wound up in Hackensack. By last spring, Wagner was coaching her full time, with technical help from Roman Serov.
"A natural talent," Wagner said. "When she was younger, I think things came rather easy, so we've worked very hard on training discipline. She's very charismatic on the ice. A feisty personality. A very good jumper. Yeah, she's an athlete."
By finishing 10th at last year's world championships, Gedevanishvili has qualified for Vancouver. So, while U.S. skaters were battling for Olympic berths at this weekend's national championships in Spokane, Wash., Wagner and Gedevanishvili were in Tallinn, Estonia, for the European championships.
That is a tuneup for Vancouver, where "finishing in the top 10 will be fantastic," said Wagner, who watched Gedevanishvili take third place yesterday. "She's not a kid who gets concerned about the placement. She thinks as I do: Let's get out there and put out the best performance. And I think she's proud of herself for knowing now what hard training is about."
In a way, Vancouver will be just another in countless skating events for Wagner. "But I think it's the aura of being at the Olympics with all these other athletes," she said, "and the excitement and the hustle-bustle, which truly can be overwhelming, and that's what makes it feel so different."
But worth the return trips.