Why Is American Figure Skating Losing the Cold War?

As the World Championships begin, U.S. women are in the midst of an eight-year medal drought. Why? Let's start with the pantsuits

Gracie Gold performs at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in February. Credit: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty

This year's U.S. women's figure skating team is incredibly talented. All three women – Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold and Polina Edmunds – boast triple-triple jump combinations, the most difficult elements, save the occasional triple Axel attempt, in women's figure skating. All three women also have spins that demonstrate the gamut between flexibility and nauseating flexibility.

Why, then, is it audacious to believe the American women will medal at this week's World Championships? Well, for starters, they haven't since 2006.

Eight years off the podium might not seem like such a big deal, but consider that even after the U.S. lost its entire team to a plane crash in 1961, it did not suffer such a losing streak. In fact, in its entire history, American women's figure skating has never seen so many years without a medal. Prior to 2007, the team had claimed medals at each of the previous 12 World Championships, and in 1991, the podium went red, white and blue: Yamaguchi, Harding, Kerrigan, for an all-American sweep. Then, in 2006, the bubble burst.

So, in the lead up to this year's World Figure Skating Championships in Shanghai, it was a little surprising to hear U.S. champ Ashley Wagner's take on things:

"The team that we're sending, we have the fighting power," she tells me. "We're bringing out the big guns, and I think we're definitely a team that could claim a medal."

Could this be the end of the American drought? Sure. Wagner, after all, has had a strong season, reclaiming the U.S. title after a disastrous two-fall long program last year that bumped her into fourth place. And at this year's Grand Prix Final, she took third place. Edmunds won the Four Continents Cup this year. And Gold, the 2014 national champion and figure skating's grand liaison to Taylor Swift, is nothing short of brilliant at her best.

Besides, it must be acknowledged that it's a weird year in figure skating, a statement which might, either in dry humor or genuine bafflement, be answered with the question, "When isn't it a weird year in figure skating?" But in all seriousness, even by the standards of the sport, one in which "flesh-toned" tights are frequently worn over the boots, it is a very weird year. Because this year, the most important competition in the sport won't include the most decorated skaters of the last decade.

Reigning Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova will not compete at the World Championships due to an injury. Nor will her compatriot and Vladimir Putin's favorite partner in Sochi photo ops, Yulia Lipnitskaya. Three-time World Champion Mao Asada has decided to sit out the competition – and maybe the entire sport forever. Her more decisive former rival, Yuna Kim, has retired after winning two World Championships and Olympic gold and silver medals. You won't see Italy's first-ever singles World champion, Carolina Kostner, either. She's barred from competition for aiding and abetting an ex-boyfriend's doping. That boyfriend's sport of choice? Olympic race walking. Che pazzo. It's as though the sport has turned itself upside down and spilled out the last ten years worth of stars.

In theory, this should mean the U.S. women are positioned perfectly to trounce the competition. After all, a Russian team bereft of its two Olympic gold medalists wouldn't stand a chance. But that is not the case. The pool of Russian figure-skating talent is both wide and deep, and this year, at the European Championships, Russia's Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, Elena Radionova and Anna Pogorilaya won gold, silver and bronze respectively.

As Wagner says, "This Worlds is gonna be a really exciting event because the Russian ladies have been dominating the scene." But why?

If you were to compare the American and Russian women on paper, they would not appear radically different. Mostly, the skaters' programs do align in terms of the technical difficulty of their planned routines. Wagner, Radionova and Pogorilaya, for example, will each attempt the triple loop/half loop/triple Salchow in their long programs. But as any skater will tell you, results are predicated on game-day execution, and when a sport operates on slivers of metal sliding through ice, tiny mistakes quickly become catastrophic.

This may be where the American women's figure skating team faces a problem. Gold and Edmunds have struggled with consistency over the last two seasons, often failing to pull together clean skates in high-stakes competitions. All of these women are terrific athletes with the potential to make a strong showing in international competition, but potential isn't performance.

"It depends on how they will skate," says Rafael Arutyunyan, the Georgian ex-pat who coaches Wagner.

It might seem like the U.S. medal drought is more a matter of mental toughness – and it is, to an extent – but there are also systematic differences between Russian and American figure skating that leave the U.S. at a disadvantage. Alex Vlassov is a two-time World medalist from Russia now living in the United States, who coached his daughter Julia and her former partner Drew Meekins to a World Junior Championship title. He believes that Russia prepares its skaters to compete more effectively by introducing the psychology of competition from the very beginning of their careers:

"They don't teach individually in Russia from the beginning. They don't have private lessons for six year olds, seven year olds, eight year olds. They have basically group lessons," Vlassov says. "Working in a small group, they start to compete against each other. And kids like to compete.

"In the U.S., it's actually very hard to compete against each other, because we think everybody should win; nobody should ever lose at anything," he continues. "It's almost like competition does not exist at a young age. But in Russia, they start competing and start winning and losing every single day, and that grows. It makes better character."

In other words, competition is completely entrenched in a Russian skater's training. Not only that, Russian skaters must attain a particular rank in competition to advance to the higher levels. This is wildly different than the USFSA testing system, in which skaters show that they can complete the elements in a noncompetitive setting and are even permitted a certain number of re-skates for failed elements. It's all very nice to get second chances, but there are no second chances in real competition. The FFKKR, Russia's figure skating federation, knows this. It's one reason that they schedule their skaters to compete within the country far more often than is customary in the U.S.; they want their skaters to practice competing. They don't want to bestow gold stars. They want fierce competitors.

The American A-for-effort ethos isn't just a problem in terms of testing either; it's a problem with coaching too. At the Basics Skills levels, some coaches have few qualifications, and even at higher levels, coaches in the U.S. need only pass four online courses, buy liability insurance, join the USFSA and complete a background check. "I can call it babysitting, very expensive babysitting," Vlassov says, explaining that when foundational skills aren't taught adequately, it can mean a lot of retraining later in a skating career. Arutyunyan, too, alluded to the game of catch-up as he discusses Wagner:

"To be competitive, it's a long process. It's a process that takes all your life," he says. "And after the two years I spent with her, basically it's not enough to get perfect."

Perestroika may seem like old news, but American figure skating does find itself facing the legacy of Soviet sporting schools in Russia. At a young age, a promising young Russian skater will often be relocated to a top skating school, where he or she will not only be motivated to skate at the level of the best in their country, but be provided with specialized coaching, sports-specific medical attention and an education. Their parents will not have to drive them to the rink. Nor will they need to hire a tutor to allow their child to train several hours a day. Perhaps most importantly, because most rinks are government-run and group lessons are the centerpiece of early training, the cost is greatly reduced. Add to this that in 2006, the last year that an American woman won a World medal, Russia increased funding for figure skating tenfold.

Meanwhile, the USFSA has allocated $11.8 million of its estimated $14 million 2014-15 budget to direct and indirect athlete funding, but that's not enough to develop competitive skaters when the cost of even elementary-level coaching can hover around $50 an hour, in addition to ice-time expenses. The governing body's solution has been to produce a document in 2002 (which has not since been updated), with such useful suggestions for obtaining corporate sponsorship as:

"When deciding what to wear, choose an outfit that is business casual. (Men: nice slacks, shirt and tie. Women: a nice pantsuit or a simple skirt and blouse)."

"Before stating a specific dollar figure, try to find out what they can give. Instead of throwing out the first number, ask, 'How much funding is available?' and 'Does the company have a budgeted amount for this type of sponsorship?'"

And my favorite:

"Be very enthusiastic, as the negotiation process may be difficult. If you are under age 14, you may wish to bring a parent to the meeting for support."

So despite the fact that, in America, we might consider the athlete an epitome of the self-made man, figure skating is too expensive for many to make themselves do much more than skate backwards, unless, apparently, one is an enthusiastic negotiator who can close the deal in a pantsuit. Or rich. It shows: In 2013, less than 3 percent of USFSA members competed above the Pre-Juvenile level. Not so long ago, even Ashley Wagner supported her skating by working at a Lucky Brand Jeans store and eating Top Ramen, hardly the breakfast of champions. Only with recent successes on the Grand Prix circuit and the attendant prize money has she been able to devote herself to skating full time.

"In the States it's too expensive to do training," Arutyunyan explains. "What we do in Russia – what we did in Russia – was more supported by government. In the States, it's more about what you have. You start to practice, and sometimes it's too late. It's not like in Russia, where we start to practice when you're five years old. And you are practicing for, like, 15-16 years, supported by clubs you belong to. In the States, you're on your own, you're by yourself."

In some ways, the American figure skating's medal drought traces the story of the American economy. The economic downturn in the U.S. has not halted the expense of figure skating, and the world of opportunities within the sport has only shrunk. The barriers to entry are high, with only the very wealthiest able to gain access. Figure skating today is not simply a matter of talent; it's a matter of privilege, with the exception of uniquely resourceful contenders like Ashley Wagner. At the same time, the legacy of the American Dream still attracts some of the best in the world, like Arutyunyan and Vlassov, making the U.S. a hub for the trans-national business of figure skating.

This week, the American women will take the ice at the World Championships alongside their fiercest competition, the Russian team. But they won't just be competing against Russia. They'll be competing against each other too. Figure skating is an individualized sport, and if the United States has taught its skaters one thing that's useful in competition, it's this: you're on your own.