USA Once Dominated Women’s Figure Skating. So What Happened?

USA Once Dominated Women’s Figure Skating. So What Happened?
USA Once Dominated Women’s Figure Skating. So What Happened?
Mirai Nagasu won bronze in the team event but slipped to 10 in the individual competition
 Mirai Nagasu won bronze in the team event but slipped to 10 in the individual competition. Photograph: John Sibley/Reuters

Amentally spent Mirai Nagasu told reporters she couldn’t wait to fly home after ending her Olympics on Friday afternoon with a disappointing and anticlimactic free skate, sounding mostly relieved it was over.

None of the US contingent of Bradie Tennell (who finished ninth), Nagasu (10th) and Karen Chen (11th) skated cleanly in the women’s singles here, marking the first time an American woman failed to finish in the top six in any Olympics since World War Two. Make no mistake: the US women’s figure skating team, once the toast of the world and the sport’s gold standard, is now an outsider.

Whatever podium hopes the American women harbored were dashed on Wednesday when all three fell on the opening jump or combination of their short programs, but the nightmare didn’t get any better on Friday afternoon.

First up was Chen, last year’s US national champion and surprise fourth-place finisher at worlds, who fell once and mixed in a bunch of technical errors, skating well below her best. Next was Tennell, who burst from obscurity to win last month’s nationals. But the 19-year-old stepped out of two landings in the middle of Friday’s free skate after falling on her opening jump of Wednesday’s short – her first tumble in 34 jumping passes this season.

On an afternoon when 15-year-old Russian Alina Zagitova became the youngest Olympic champion since Tara Lipinski, the dizzying heights of the America’s long-held dominance never seemed further away.

The glamour event of the Winter Olympics was once friendly ground for American women, who accounted for 19 of a possible 45 Olympic medals in the women’s singles from 1952 through 2006, a roll of iconic alumnae that included Lipinski, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi and Sarah Hughes.

They’ve won exactly zero at the three Olympics since and have only made the podium once in the last 11 world championships: Ashley Wagner’s home-soil silver in 2016. And while American women had slipped from consistent podium contenders to the fourth-to-seventh range over the last decade, their Pyeongchang showing indicates a downward trend.

The decline can be put down to a constellation of factors including the sport’s decline in popularity from the dizzying Tonya-Nancy heights. The rise of cold-weather alternatives popularized by the X Games have affected participation and thinned the domestic field. And the loss of lucrative TV contracts and sponsorship dollars have had a trickle-down effects including shrinking prize money and appearance fees.

The lack of financial incentive exacerbates the economic barriers to entry that have always been present in a sport where the costs of participation – equipment, ice time, private lessons, choreography, costumes, et al – are prohibitive.

Detractors say the sport has become a jumping contest and bemoan the calculated tactics of Zagitova, who backloaded all of her jumps into the final two minutes where they’re subject to a 10% technical bonus meant to reward stamina. They also note the career-shortening effect of the emphasis on athleticism over artistry: gone are the days of any top skater winning nine straight national championships as Michelle Kwan did in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

But by failing to fall in, the United States has fallen behind. Only recently did American officials revamp the scoring system at the juvenile and novice levels to reward skaters for attempting more technically advanced jumps, a move Russia made years ago.

Ultimately, it will take a special athlete to light up the sport in America once more. But until then, it’s time to acknowledge America’s underwhelming Pyeongchang performance as what it is: not an outlier but the new normal.

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