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What's Gone Wrong with USA Ladies' Figure Skating?

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2018

Marai Nagasu, Bradie Tennell and Karen Chen shared the podium at U.S. Nationals, but they will be hard-pressed to get there at the Olympics.
Marai Nagasu, Bradie Tennell and Karen Chen shared the podium at U.S. Nationals, but they will be hard-pressed to get there at the Olympics.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Bradie Tennell, Mirai Nagasu, Karen Chen. For American fans, those are the names to remember when the world's foremost female figure skaters take the ice in hopes of prevailing in what traditionally is the most hyped and celebrated competition of the Winter Olympics.

But there's one glaring difference between these three and the many U.S. women before them who laid inarguable claim to Olympic supremacy.

If all goes exceedingly well, one of them might rise to the occasion for a bronze medal. But don't expect to see them penciled in anywhere for gold.

That's a tough reality to accept for U.S. skating fans who were spoiled by the 1992-2002 era during which Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes won golds. And it's tougher still for history buffs who treasure golden memories of legends Peggy Fleming from 1968 and Dorothy Hamill in 1976.

U.S. women haven't medaled at the Games since Sasha Cohen took silver in 2006. A third consecutive shutout would mark their longest absence from the podium in Olympic history.

So why have American hopes been dashed so mercilessly? Well, take your pick.

 

Kristi Yamaguchi earned gold for the U.S. in 1992.
Kristi Yamaguchi earned gold for the U.S. in 1992.Lionel Cironneau/Associated Press/Associated Press

Everything counts now

The judging scandal at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics led to a complete overhaul of scoring rules in 2004. All jumps and other moves were assigned values. The system has been tinkered with since, but the bottom line is that difficult jumps score big, and skaters who rely more on artistry than athleticism suffer consequences.

Given the results from recent Olympics and world championships, it appears other nations have done a better job than the U.S. of adapting to the new system.

"I think it's just the demand of getting the points that you need for every program. You can't leave anything on the table," Yamaguchi told me at the U.S. Nationals in January. "You can't just do a beautiful edge, like Peggy Fleming or Dorothy Hamill, because you've got to be doing edge changes, and turns and body rolls to keep your point levels up. That is exhausting."

Equally important is that the new system often rewards failed attempts at difficult moves more than it does successful jumps that are easier. Lipinski and fellow NBC commentator Johnny Weir have addressed this quirk throughout these Games, reminding viewers that it's better to fall on a triple-revolution jump than it is to softly land a double.

"I think in Russia and Japan their strategy is different," Lipinski said in the lead-up to Pyeongchang. "For them, it is all or nothing. They were pushed, and they were rewarded for it. For so many years, U.S. skaters have had the strategy of 'Do I risk it? Do I save it? Do I push it?'"

The emphasis on "skating clean" is persistently heard among American skaters, but it's no longer an effective strategy.

"We're not getting consistent jumpers, so they're definitely not going to risk putting these tougher elements in their program," Lipinski said.

Tara Lipinski was only 15 when she outdueled Michelle Kwan for gold in 1998.
Tara Lipinski was only 15 when she outdueled Michelle Kwan for gold in 1998.ERIC DRAPER/Associated Press

 

Bonus points

Imagine an NBA player scoring four points for hitting a three-pointer in a game's waning minutes. That's akin to another wrinkle in the scoring.

All jumps made in the second half of a program, when legs are tiring, get a 10 percent bonus.

We can probably thank Lipinski and 1994 gold medalist Oksana Baiul for inspiring that rule.

Baiul defeated Nancy Kerrigan, and the Ukrainian's razor-thin margin of victory has been attributed to the crowd-pleasing combination jump she unexpectedly threw in at the end.

Lipinski also saved an explosive combination jump for the end of her free skate in 1998, inspiring another roar.

"I knew I had to put my triple loop-triple salchow in the program, and I knew it would be more impressive if I put it in the last 10 seconds of my program," Lipinski said.

"I would have loved to have skated under this system," Lipinski added. "Every triple counts, and I had two combinations in the second half of my long program."

So who's taking the greatest advantage of bonus points? Fifteen-year-old Alina Zagitova of Russia, who saves every jump of her free skate for the second half of the program. Speaking of which...

Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova are heavily favored to go 1-2 in ladies' figure skating.
Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova are heavily favored to go 1-2 in ladies' figure skating.Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press/Associated Press

 

The Russian women are amazing

For decades, the emphasis in figure skating for Russia (and the bygone Soviet Union) was on pairs, where they enjoyed an Olympic dynasty from 1964-2006. But now that dominance has shifted to the ladies singles.

Adelina Sotnikova won gold for Russia in 2014, and leading the way this time is 18-year-old Evgenia Medvedeva, a two-time world champion who was an overwhelming favorite for Pyeongchang gold until suffering a foot injury. Medvedeva has recovered, but Zagitova is coming on quickly and was brilliant while skating a long program in the team event.

Lipinski said a combination jump like the triple flip-triple toe is "still a 50-50 shot" for most Americans, but for the Russians, "It's almost like they're walking."

Which adds to the Russians' psychological advantage.

"I think when you're in a warm-up with the Russians, you look around and you realize, 'I need to up my game,'" Lipinski said.

Also, Russia's centralized sports system puts Medvedeva and Zagitova together at every training session, skating for the same coach. That no doubt raises the intensity of every practice. With the three Americans, Tennell trains in Illinois, Nagasu in Colorado and Chen in Southern California.

The third Russian woman, Maria Sotskova, also looms as formidable after taking silver at this season's Grand Prix final.

Meanwhile, the Russians have an impeccable pipeline that keeps producing. Russian girls have won seven of the last nine world junior championships, including Medvedeva in 2015 and Zagitova in 2017. The U.S. hasn't had a world junior champion since 2008 or a medalist since 2012.

Mirai Nagasu was fourth at the 2010 Olympics for the U.S. but then had struggles.
Mirai Nagasu was fourth at the 2010 Olympics for the U.S. but then had struggles.Julie Jacobson/Associated Press/Associated Press

U.S. women have been inconsistent

Seldom do the new faces in figure skating receive instant rewards from international panels of judges. They need to be seen performing their best in multiple competitions, and, for the U.S., that has been a problem.

Tennell twice has had long layoffs because of fractured vertebrae and has never been to a senior world championship. Nagasu was fourth at the 2010 Olympics but has never medaled at worlds. Chen's surprise fourth-place finish at the 2017 worlds is what earned three spots for the U.S. at these Games, but she was mostly a non-factor in the Grand Prix season leading up to Pyeongchang. And no American woman has reached the Grand Prix final the last two years.

So where does that leave the U.S. women as they head for the short program on Wednesday (ET)?

In a crammed pack of bronze-medal hopefuls: Russia's Sotskova. Italy's Carolina Kostner, the bronze medalist in 2014. And Canadians Kaetlyn Osmond, a bronze medalist at the Grand Prix final, and Gabrielle Daleman, who in South Korea helped Canada win gold in the team event.

As Yamaguchi says of the U.S. outlook: "I don't think it's that we've been so weak. I think it's that other countries have been so strong and consistent."

    

Tom Weir covered eight Winter Olympics as a columnist for USA Today.

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