2018-02-21 12:50:05
Sports of The Times: U.S. Skaters Stumble Again. Is Their System Broken?

12:50, February 21 110 0

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — The morning of the women’s short program of figure skating at the Pyeongchang Olympics was just like any other competition morning for Bradie Tennell, the United States’ national champion.

She crunched on some cornflakes. She met with her mother, so she could sew a hairpiece into her bun. She listened to some classic rock, with one of her favorite songs, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” playing in her ears just before her performance.

Tennell likes her routine. It helps her focus, and focusing has helped her build a reputation as a woman who never, ever stumbles.

So when Tennell fell on her opening jump, which was supposed to be a triple-triple combination, it was a shock — and an unfortunate harbinger of another bad day for the United States figure skating team.

Her teammate Mirai Nagasu also fell on her opening jump, a triple axel. Then the third American, Karen Chen, followed suit, landing her initial triple Lutz with so much momentum that she had to put her hand down and forgo the second jump in that combination.

“It’s kind of funny, but kind of sad,” Chen said. “I wish we all nailed it.”

Their performance was the worst ever for the United States women’s team in the Olympic short program, which started in 1976. Nagasu finished ninth, Chen 10th and Tennell 11th. Nagasu is nearly 16 points — a canyon of a gap — behind the leader, Alina Zagitova of Russia.

All is not lost: A great free skate and a few breaks could produce a medal. As the saying goes, the ice is slippery. But right now it looks as if the United States will finish off the podium. Again.

The last time an American woman won an Olympic medal was in 2006, when Sasha Cohen took silver. In the 10 Winter Games before that, the United States always had at least one female medalist. In five of them, the Olympic champion was an American. But that era of success is drifting further and further away.

What can be done to stop this medal drought? Samuel Auxier, the president of U.S. Figure Skating, said that he heard that question “all the time.” He has some answers.

At the United States nationals last month, Auxier told me that U.S. Figure Skating used to overregulate its lower-level skaters. The federation prohibited those young athletes from even trying triple jumps, partly because of the possibility of injury. He said that rule was instituted about 10 to 12 years ago, and he contends that is one reason American skaters lately haven’t been as technically strong as their rivals from countries like Russia.

They simply haven’t had the time to fine-tune their triples, mostly because they started trying them so late.

That rule, Auxier said, was rescinded several years ago under his watch. There is also a relatively new scoring system of bonus points that gives incentives to young skaters who try jumps like triples and double axels.

“I think post-Olympics, when the next generation comes up, we’ll see more difficulty on the technical side from our skaters,” Auxier said. “It’s possible that we’ll get back on the podium in the next couple of years, but sometimes life and puberty get in the way.”

There has also been a push to open centralized training sites where skaters can work with top coaches but also train next to top skaters. That system works. Just ask the Russians.

Zagitova, 15, and her Russian teammate Evgenia Medvedeva, who is 18 and was second in the short program, are proof. They train together and compete against each other every day. Medvedeva described the arrangement as a motivational tool.

“You feel so strange because you are older and you must be stronger than them,” Medvedeva said.

“Every competition,” she added, “is a little war.”

In the Russian view, the best way to ace the Olympic test is to pass all the quizzes along the way. That is not a guarantee, though, that American skating — a fiercely independent ecosystem — will ever embrace the centralized model.

“Most coaches in the United States hang their own shingle out, and they don’t want anybody touching their skater,” said Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist. “They don’t want to share any information with anybody, and it’s a very old-school mentality.”

Some skating clubs around the country, including the Broadmoor Skating Club in Colorado Springs, where Nagasu trains, have been informally creating their own working groups. They aren’t state-sponsored the way the Russians are. They don’t have free and constant access to an ice rink the way the Russians do. But at least it’s a start on working together, as a village, to raise great skaters.

It’s a much better start than the Americans had on Wednesday.

Nagasu said she came out with too much adrenaline and over-rotated her axel, causing her to fall. “A little, tiny error,” she said. Chen said her nerves got to her, producing a shaky first jump. Tennell also blamed the pressure, and said she couldn’t remember the last time she had fallen on a jump.

What they do is harder than it looks. And they will all do it again on Friday, when they hope their routines will be fall-free and close to perfect — or, at minimum, just plain routine.