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.”