On Feb. 3, 2013, I posted, “I hope Michael Jordan scores a home run in that thing today” on Facebook, hoping to broadcast to all 400 of my friends that I was too esoteric to be concerned with the Super Bowl. The truth is, as much as I enjoy turning my nose up at hypermasculine fans of what I deride as bloodsport, I get it. I get investing your whole heart into a team with whom you have nothing more than a geographic or patriotic link. I get the thrill of witnessing new heights of record-setting, history-making human achievement. Most of all, I get the righteous satisfaction that accompanies meritocracy — that the day’s most deserving athlete won.
Hence why the latest update in my chosen sport, figure skating, is so disheartening. Ignoring calls from journalists, pundits and fans to send 23-year-old Mirai Nagasu to the World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA) will not retroactively revise world team assignments.
At January’s 2017 US Figure Skating Championships, Nagasu finished fourth overall, just barely missing a berth on the three-lady World Championship team. Fast forward to the Four Continents Championships Feb. 18, a trial run for skaters to build toward Worlds in March. Nagasu skated a career-best long program, surging to a bronze medal 17.85 points ahead of Mariah Bell (sixth) and 28.13 points clear of Karen Chen (twelfth) in a sport often decided by tenths.
However, because the 2017 Four Continents Championships are not included in the world selection criteria, Bell, the national bronze medalist, and Chen, the national champion, will compete in Nagasu’s stead. Despite the fact that Nagasu’s best international scores (i.e., her scoring ceiling) surpass Bell’s and embarrass Chen’s this season; that she has competed at this level since winning nationals in 2008, while Chen and Bell admitted feeling pressure at Four Continents, a relatively low-stakes event. Though she may not be a beacon of consistency herself, Nagasu peaks when it counts later in the season.
The consequences extend beyond the scope of world medals. Placements at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships dictate the number of athletes the USFSA can send to next year’s Winter Olympics and Worlds; a combined placement of 13 or less by two skaters (e.g., fourth and ninth) will keep a third spot; anything worse will relegate us to two. With three dominant Russians and three Japanese ladies nipping at their heels, a resurgent Carolina Kostner back from hiatus and two newly competitive Canadians to contend against, American veteran Ashley Wagner will likely finish no higher than fifth — and Bell and Chen far below that, jeopardizing that valuable third Olympic berth.
The USFSA’s policy of naming international teams prematurely — two months before Worlds — has a history of backfiring. In 2011, Nagasu was again an alternate for Worlds, easily defeating her compatriots at Four Continents; yet world assignments were not reconsidered and an injured Rachael Flatt finished 12th. Alissa Czisny remained on the 2012 team even as every sign pointed to her performance deteriorating over the course of the season. She fell seven times and placed 22nd, the worst showing for an American lady since 1994.
Given the circumstances, the USFSA is the only major federation that would not reassess the team. The Russian Skating Federation still has yet to publish their Worlds roster and has previously replaced struggling skaters. US women’s gymnastics has revolutionized a centralized system of training camps that place gymnasts under internal competition. Constant scrutiny breeds preternatural levels of mental fortitude, drive and competitive nerve, reinforced by the knowledge that, should an athlete’s performance falter, a plethora of equally talented women can and will take their place.
The result? The Russian ladies’ field, favored to sweep the podium, is so embarrassingly deep that two Olympic gold medalists and the 2015 world champion were left off the 2016 team. US gymnasts have not lost a team competition since 2010 and boast the last four Olympic all-around champions.
Reevaluating team assignments would be decried as unprecedented for the USFSA, and unsportsmanlike and unfair to the athlete being replaced, so the USFSA will operate the way it traditionally has. Bell and Chen will botch one or both of their programs and lose that coveted third spot. Our national champion will tumble outside the top ten for the first time since 2009. We will send Wagner and one of five interchangeable non-contenders to the Pyeongchang Games, coming to terms with the slow, bitter end of the American ladies’ reign. And fans will bide their time, energy and talking points for when this debate is inevitably brought out onto thin ice once more.
My take? Figure skating is as cutthroat as its eighth-inch wide steel blades suggest. It is not a practice in the art of diplomacy. The USFSA must prioritize results over coddling, being more conditional in their assignments and more willing to monitor and replace athletes who underperform between nationals and Worlds. While this bucks longstanding trends, it will be a welcome change to a sport criticized for its adherence to archaic standards, lack of transparency and politicking. So long as this change is communicated clearly, the underlying message will not be that the USFSA is untrustworthy, but rather, that it is serious about reemerging as a major player in ladies figure skating on the world stage.
Your move, USFSA.