The hearts and hopes of U.S. figure skating fans are in good hands with first-time Olympians Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay.
To the surprise of many, including perhaps themselves, the underdogs secured their first berth to the Games on the strength of their silver-medal-winning performance in January at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston. They finished less than one-third of a point ahead of 2012 national champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, but the selection committee elected to grant Zhang and Bartholomay the Olympic opportunity over their more experienced rivals.
Going into the nationals, it was believed that Denney and Coughlin would challenge reigning champs Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir for the gold medal and almost certainly grab the second spot on the Olympic team.
Just 20 years old, Denney was a 2010 Olympic veteran with a 13th-place finish in Vancouver. After she joined forces with Coughlin in 2011, the pair quickly became a team on the rise. Denney and Coughlin finished eighth at the 2012 World Championships before Coughlin was forced to miss nine months of action after undergoing hip surgery to repair a torn labrum that December.
The 2014 Olympics were always the target through Coughlin’s rehabilitation.
Did the U.S. selection committee make the right choice in sending Zhang and Bartholomay to the Olympics over Denney and Coughlin?
Zhang and Bartholomay also teamed up in 2011. They placed eighth at the U.S. nationals in 2012 but continued to improve while Denney and Coughlin were sidelined. They finished third at the 2013 nationals and were seen as potential medalists again in 2014.
At the U.S. Championships, Denney and Coughlin recovered from a disappointing fourth-place finish in the short program to outskate all of their rivals in the free dance. They moved up just one place in the standings, finishing the weekend in third.
After the competition, Bartholomay acknowledged that their rivals’ stronger international pedigree might make them the selection committee’s preferred option for Sochi. “We skated just as hard and as passionate as we could,” he said, per Gary Milhoces of USA Today. “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.”
According to Scott Mammoser of Examiner.com, “It was Zhang who melted hearts during the press conference announcing the Olympic team, breaking down in tears.”
Newly arrived in Sochi, Zhang and Bartholomay look to be having the time of their lives so far.
The team may be green, but the selection committee saw plenty of upside when it anointed the underdogs. In addition to showing consistent year-over-year improvement, Zhang and Bartholomay’s ability to deliver the best programs of their lives at just the right moment had to impress the committee—and they did it in two very different ways.
The short program competition was full of falls and fails before Zhang and Bartholomay stepped in with their near-flawless performance. They set the standard for Denney and Coughlin, who made a couple of errors when they skated right after.
In the free skate, Zhang and Bartholomay were the final pair of the competition. They watched Denney and Coughlin bounce back with the best long program of the night, then saw local favorites Castelli and Shnapir bask in the love from the crowd before stepping in to deliver another great skate of their own.
Between concerns about Coughlin’s hip and Denney’s obvious nerves in Boston, the 2012 champs may have already peaked. Zhang and Bartholomay are still climbing the mountain.
Zhang and Bartholomay are not expected to bring home a medal from Sochi. Their chance to experience what it means to be an Olympian without much pressure on their shoulders could be a perfect opportunity for the most liberating performance of their lives.