GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Bradie Tennell fell. Mirai Nagasu fell. Karen Chen had to put her hand down on the ice to stop herself from falling.
Three American skaters. Three errors they likely won’t be able to recover from here at the Olympics short program Wednesday.
“I’m mad,” said Nagasu, who is ninth place. “I’m upset.”
“I am not going to lie, I am pretty disappointed in myself,” said Chen, who is in 10th.
“We’re all human,” said Tennell, who is in 11th. “We make mistakes.”
The United States hasn’t won a medal in ladies’ figure skating since 2006, when Sasha Cohen took silver. Barring a miraculous comeback, that streak will extend to 2022 in Beijing. It’s a major fall from grace for U.S. Figure Skating, which was once an international powerhouse.
From 1952 in Oslo through 2006 in Turin, the Americans won 19 of a possible 45 medals, including seven golds. That included iconic talents – Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan, Tara Lipinski, Michelle Kwan, Debi Thomas and so on. Every four years there were contenders, often multiple ones, the competition so fierce skaters were having each other’s knees clubbed.
There is no simple answer to what happened, just as there is no easy fix. What’s clear is the rest of the world has pushed forward in recent years, notably the Russians, Japanese and even the Canadians. Better athletes? Better training? Better systems and strategies?
It’s all of that.
In the micro, Wednesday can be brushed aside as just an unfortunate coincidence, all three American competitors failing to hit their first jump. The micro keeps happening, though, every four years. It’s not like the U.S. is dominating at any other point. From 1996-2006, the US won 15 medals, including seven golds at the annual world championships. In the 11 years since, the Americans have taken just one, a 2016 silver by Ashley Wagner.
There is talent – Nagasu, for example, is the only competitor here capable of attempting the triple axel. And no one doubts any of their tenacity or dedication. This is the sport, though. This is how it’s judged. And why it’s judged. You either hit the jumps or you don’t. It’s a cruel competition, no margin for error.
“This isn’t what I wanted,” Nagasu said.
“Kind of sad,” Chen said. “I wish we all had nailed it.”
There were some dazed looks in the back halls of the Gangneung Ice Arena. Skaters were frustrated. Coaches were frustrated. U.S. skating officials were frustrated. No one thought this was going to be 1998, when Lipinski and Kwan went gold-silver, but no one wanted to accept that these Olympics were essentially over so quickly.
By the way of the draw, the Americans all skated fairly early on Wednesday. As everyone tried to come up with explanations for the worst short program performance in Team USA history, roars of the crowd swept down the hall from the arena, adding insult to injury as another Russian, Canadian or Japanese skater delivered some bit of magic.
Those three countries own six of the top seven spots.
Some, such as Chen’s coach, Tammy Gambill, think it might be cyclical and points to talent in the junior ranks. Others believe the U.S. was slow to adjust to changes in the International Skating Union’s scoring system, which hurt this generation of skaters when they were developing. At least that has changed, everyone agrees.
“For many, many years our younger champions were winning without any of the skills needed to be elite skaters,” said Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches Nagasu.
There’s the lack of a national training center of excellence, where the best would have to learn to compete, both physically and, perhaps most importantly, mentally against each other. Many other countries have such programs, taking young talent and refining it. But that’s a cultural issue that isn’t easily solved. Almost no one in the United States is shipping off their 10-year-old.
Perhaps the most painful answer is that figure skating doesn’t attract enough talent anymore. For generations, it was the winter sport for a certain type of athlete.
“The X-Games and the introduction of those acrobatic sports in the Olympics have given kids who have that acrobatic tendency to look someplace else to fulfill it, just with a different apparatus,” Zakrajsek said.
Chloe Kim, figure skating gold medalist? Who knows, it might have been.
There is also USA Gymnastics, where the women’s program has lapped the world as a power. The talent is so deep, the Americans could send a dozen competitors to the Olympics and win medals. If some of those kids chose skating instead, maybe there are better competitors here, or, at the very least, the ones who did make it to PyeongChang would have been pushed harder.
Zakrajsek has two children. When they were younger, they did gymnastics as well as skating. What stuck with him was the difference in the cost of each sport, especially at the youth entry level. You can throw some mats down almost anywhere. Not so with ice, which costs a ton to maintain.
“Gymnastics was peanuts compared to figure skating,” Zakrajsek said. “You start figure skating and it is not as economical as gymnastics. It could be some economic factors entering there.”
It’s all of it. And fixing it isn’t just snapping a finger.
What’s clear is one of the great teams in international sports – USA women’s skating – is no longer a contender, no longer feared, no longer cutting-edge. They have some great skaters with great potential. Each woman is a tremendous story and role model. No one is questioning any of that.
The results are the results, though. They tally up scores and hand out medals for a reason.
The U.S. used to find itself on top. That was then. And then is getting to be a long time ago.
More Olympic coverage from Yahoo Sports:
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• Vonn: I’ll need ‘medical miracle’ for 2022 Games
• Photo shows Gus Kenworthy’s ugly hip injury
• The legend of Chloe Kim continues to grow