Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Drama with the US Womens' Olympic Skating Team– Go Figure!

[From L to R] Polina Edmunds, Gracie Gold, Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner (photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Figure Skating fanatics who watched the U.S. Championship in Boston this weekend may be scratching their heads at the selection for the U.S. Womens’ Figure Skating squad.  At the competition, Gracie Gold glided into a first place finish, with 15 year old Polina Edmunds coming in second and Vancouver Olympic veteran Mirai Nagasu took third.

Two time national champion Ashley Wagner fell twice her long performance in the U.S. Championships and came in fourth. The 22 year old Wagner, a graduate of West Potomac (MD) High, was so chagrined at her routine that she mouthed “I’m sorry.”  as she left the ice. Wagner labeled her performance in Boston as being a “tearful little wimp out on the ice.”   Yet when the U.S. Figure Skating Association announced its selections to represent the United States in the XXII Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia Federation, Wagner made the team and Nagasu did not.

Before the selection committee’s decision, the 20 year old Mirai Nagasu emoted:

 Hopefully, they pick me to the team. I haven’t always been the most consistent skater, but I know I’m always good under pressure – most of the time. The only thing I can brag about now is I’m the only person with Olympic experience. I’ll have to respect any choice that they make.

Nagasu had a few factors which worked against her.  She finished fourth in the Vancouver Games, and she came into the U.S. Championship without a full time coach.  After learning her fate of not making the Olympic team, Nagasu free skate was filled with tears.

Mirai Nagasu Free Skate routine at 2014 U.S. Championships

USFSA President Patricia St. Peter explained that the selection decision making included the most recent nationals but was not ruled by that competition.  The USFSA considers performance over the last year.  St. Peter said: “If you look at Ashley Wagner’s record and performance, she’s got the top credentials of any of our female athletes.”  Wagner finished fifth in the 2013 world championships and won a Bronze medal at the Grand Prix final.

Ashley Wagner
In reaction to being named as part of the Sochi Olympic squad, Wagner said: “"I'm happy that my federation was able to see beyond one bad skate.”  This was after a sleepless night with Face Time, a big glass of wine and watching the film “The Seven Year Itch”.  It was a marked contrast to Wagner’s  pre-nationals statement that:

 "I don’t want to feel like I am taking away an Olympic spot from someone.  I want to earn it.  That’s my goal here. For me, I need to get in the top three to really feel good with myself being on the Olympic Team."

Figure Skating is renowned for being an art as much as a sport, and there certainly are elements of drama associated with it.  Some disappointed Nagasu supporters have proffered that racism drove the decision to exclude Nagasu from the Olympic squad. I am highly skeptical of this charge, but I do think that marketing may have in part drove the decision.

At the XXI Winter Olympiad, the US Womens’ Figure Skating Team was kept off the dais for the first time since the Innsbrook, Austria Games of 1964.  So the USFSA wanted to hedge their bets with a stronger overall prospect rather than a “fluke”.  And Nagasu not having a full time coach might have hurt her in backroom negotiations.

 However Ms. Wagner, with her string of recent wins (aside from the 2014 US Nationals) may be easier to market rather than Ms. Nagasu, who Tara Lipinski noted had a hard year and was not expected to do well.   With US Woman Skier Lindsey Vonn not participating in Sochi due to injuries, having another marketable woman's star would be useful for NBC to hype it's $775 million investment for broadcasting 1,500 hours of the Sochi Olympics.

The wisdom of the USFSA inclusion of Ashley Wagner will soon be evident when the Olympic Games kick off in Sochi on February 6th. 

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