Will Controversial Pairs Decision Shake Up 2014 US Olympic Figure Skating Team?

James McMahonContributor IJanuary 11, 2014

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Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir are all but certain to be heading to the Sochi Winter Olympics after capturing pairs gold at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Yet the drama and intrigue that played out on the ice during Saturday’s free skate competition is continuing off of it. The identity of the second team joining Castelli and Shnapir in Russia next month won’t be announced until Sunday afternoon, and there is significant debate as to who that might be.

Will it be the U.S. silver medalists Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay, or perhaps bronze-medal winners Caydee Denney and John Coughlin who are ultimately named to the U.S. Olympic figure skating team? At this point, it’s anyone’s guess, but the anticipation and pending controversy of the ultimate decision is palatable.

With one of the top performances of Saturday’s free skate, Zhang and Bartholomay narrowly edged Denney and Coughlin by a mere 0.29 to capture the silver medal. That clutch skate, however, does not guarantee they will be chosen to represent the country ahead of Denney and Coughlin, who actually won the free skate after finishing fourth in the short program on Friday.

Indeed, given just how narrow the gap was between silver and bronze, there is considerable question as to which direction U.S. figure skating will go on Sunday. Traditionally, the top pairs from the national championships are chosen to the Olympic team, which has two spots in Sochi, but when there is so little separating teams from one another during competition, other options can be considered.

So the choice between Zhang/Bartholomay and Denney/Coughlin comes down to two arguments: What have you done for me lately, and what might you do for me in the future?

Jan 11, 2014; Boston, MA, USA; Caydee Denney and John Coughlin perform during the pairs free skate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Zhang and Bartholomay have the silver medal and two terrific performances in the national championships, including the clutch free skate as the last duo on the ice Saturday, to rest their case on. Denney and Coughlin have the free skate victory and a proven track record that suggests they are better prepared for the pressure and bright spotlight of the Winter Olympic Games.

It’s indeed a difficult but extremely important question the selection committee now faces, and one that will have considerable impact on the team that is ultimately sent to Russia just a few weeks from now.

While pairs don’t get the attention that ladies and men’s figure skating does at the games, they’re crucial to the overall depth of the Olympic team. The United States has captured at least one individual or pairs medal in each of the past 17 Winter Games and needs to put the best possible team on the ice to keep that impressive streak alive.

That, essentially, is at the crux of the argument between the two pairs teams.

There’s no question that Zhang and Bartholomay more than made their case on the ice at the TD Garden in Boston, Mass. Their free skate performance was nearly flawless under intense pressure, and they needed every bit of it to stay ahead of Denney and Coughlin in the overall competition.

"We're both just completely on cloud nine right now," Bartholomay said, via USA Today's Gary Mihoces. "As for the decision, from the committee as to who goes, we are aware second place isn't locked in. We gave it everything we had."

Likewise, a strong argument can be made that Denney and Coughlin’s inclusion would make the U.S. Olympic figure skating team a deeper and more dangerous group in Sochi next month. The pair captured the 2012 National Championship, but was unable to defend that title last year due to a hip injury that sidelined Coughlin for much of the 2012-13 season.

That said, Denny and Coughlin have substantially more international experience than Zhang and Bartholomay and were essentially their equals on the ice during these national championships. Prior to Coughlin’s injury, the duo captured a pair of bronze medals in the 2012 Grand Prix Series, and albeit with a different partner, Denney was a 2010 Olympian in Vancouver.

But Coughlin's hip may be on the minds of those choosing between the two teams. The Chicago Tribune's Philip Hersh writes, "That he and Denney, who won the free skate, could not defend their 2012 U.S. title or compete at worlds last year because of his injury may factor large in the selection committee's decision."

Any concerns about Coughlin’s hip should have been put to rest by his performance in these national championships, making the decision the committee now has in front of it strictly about this past weekend’s performances and the potential for a strong Olympic showing next month.

It’s by no means an easy debate or question to answer, but that is essentially the charge the selection committee has in front of it Saturday night and Sunday morning. It may not be the biggest call it will make this weekend, but it’s one that has plenty of consequences for four very talented Olympic hopefuls.