Now (or never?) for U.S. women to end skate worlds medal drought

Evgenia Medvedeva celebrates her triumph at the European Championships. (ISU photo)

Evgenia Medvedeva celebrates her triumph at the European Championships. (ISU photo)

After two busy weeks on the figure skating scene, including the U.S., Canadian and European Championships, let’s catch our breath for a look of what it all means to U.S. singles skaters as they look toward the Mar. 28- April 3 World Championships in Boston.

Today, a look at the women’s situation.  Yesterday, we covered the men:

*Gracie Gold should have an excellent chance at a world medal simply by skating her best in both programs.  Ashley Wagner will likely need help (i.e. mistakes) by other skaters to get there, but she also is in contention.

Of course, I said the same thing in reverse last year (Wagner could do it on her own, Gold could do it with help), when the U.S. women’s medal drought at worlds reached nine years.

Much will depend on how well this year’s sensation, Evgenia Medvedeva, and her Russian compatriots skate in Boston, since the only apparent women’s medal contender outside of the U.S. or Russia is Japan’s Satoko Miyahara, the reigning world silver medalist.

Medvedeva, 16, has made mistakes this season, but the overall level of her skating has been wondrous, as reflected by her wins in the European Championships, Grand Prix Final and Russian Championships. 

The stamina that allows her to “back load” programs, with all the jumps (short program) or most (8 of 11 in the free skate) coming when a 10 percent bonus applies, allows her to pile up extra points.  And there is a captivating quality about her, from facial expressions to arm movements, that is drawing high component scores, including one perfect 10 for interpretation in her free skate at the Europeans.

Japan's Satoko Miyahara is reigning world and Grand Prix Final silver medalist. (ISU photo)

Japan's Satoko Miyahara is reigning world and Grand Prix Final silver medalist. (ISU photo)

The only question is whether the rigors of her first senior season will have worn her down, as they did to the 2015 sensation, Russia’s Elena Radionova, then also 16.  At last year’s worlds, where she finished third overall, Radionova stumbled through a sixth-place free skate.

Radionova just finished second at Europeans for the second straight year.  The bronze medalist in a very weak field, Anna Pogorilaya, seems certain to be left off Russia’s world team after two desultory skates at Europeans.

Results at a Russian Cup event Feb. 16-20 in Saransk are expected to determine the third spot.

Will it go to reigning world champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, back to also-ran status after a 2015 season in which she was all-conquering in major events?  Or to Yulia Lipnitskaya, an also-ran for two seasons after becoming the darling of the 2014 Olympics, who switched coaches in mid-November?

(A day after I posted this, Tuktamysheva's coach, Alexei Mishin, told Russian media she "definitely will not compete" at the worlds.  She is skating this weekend in the Sarajevo Open, a very low-level event.)

Let’s presume – a very hypothetical case - all the top contenders skate cleanly at worlds.  Then it would seem impossible to keep Gold from the podium, and a silver medal would be a decent bet.  She is a more powerful jumper and more compelling skater than Radionova.

Gold’s problem has been undermining herself with one bad program, usually the short, usually with a brain cramp mistake.  When she is flawless, as in the free skate at nationals, you just sit back, enjoy, and say, “Wow!”

*And what of Polina Edmunds, second at nationals to Gold after a decisive win in the short program and a second in the free skate?

Sometimes it seems the little girl image she still projects at nearly 18 is holding her back.  Medvedeva, 18 months younger than Edmunds, has been packaged with a more sophisticated look that gives her an air of maturity on the ice that, fair or not, gets reflected in her component scores.

International judges have not warmed to Edmunds, eighth at the last two worlds, either technically or artistically.

In four Grand Prix programs this season, she was marked down for under rotated jumps nine times.  There was just one such deduction at nationals.

Were her jumps that much better at nationals or do international judges (and technical specialists) expect Edmunds to under rotate and not give her any benefit of the doubt?  Even with replay, many of those decisions are very close calls that would require more time and review than is available to get near 100 percent accuracy.

Gracie Gold thinks elusive world medal is in U.S. women's reach. (ISU photo)

Gracie Gold thinks elusive world medal is in U.S. women's reach. (ISU photo)

*Just two years from the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, it seems highly likely that for the first time of the 19 occasions when the U.S. has had three women in singles, it will send the same three women – Gold, Edmunds, Wagner - to consecutive Winter Games.  (Presuming, of course, the U.S. earns the three spots for 2018, to be decided by results at the 2017 worlds.)

That is a testament to the skill of the three skaters - and in Wagner’s case, the feisty determination to stay competitive at the venerable skating age of 24 (25 in mid-May).

A year ago, Wagner became the second oldest U.S. women’s champion in 79 years – behind Michelle Kwan, 24, when she won her last of nine titles in 2005.  Should she make the 2018 Olympics, Wagner would be the oldest U.S. women’s Olympic singles skater since 1928, when the two entrants were Theresa Weld Blanchard (34) and Beatrix Loughran (27).

But the likelihood of this women’s three-peat is, alas, also a testament to the lack of upcoming U.S. talent.

By the midway point of all but one recent Olympic cycle, an eventual fresh Winter Games face had already gained a senior nationals medal or title – Wagner in 2012, Mirai Nagasu and Rachel Flatt in 2008, Sarah Hughes and Sasha Cohen in 2000, Tara Lipinski in 1996.

There was no such skater at this nationals, when last year’s breakout skater, Karen Chen, tumbled from third in 2015 (when she was too young for senior worlds) to a distant eighth.

And unlike 2004, when eventual 2006 Olympian Kimmie Meissner won the U.S. junior title and was second at junior worlds, none of the top juniors this year looks ready to challenge Gold, Edmunds or Wagner for an Olympic sport two years hence.

Ashley Wagner feels only inconsistency has kept U.S. women from worlds podium (ISU photo)

Ashley Wagner feels only inconsistency has kept U.S. women from worlds podium (ISU photo)

For now, though, the issue is breaking the women’s medal drought, longest in U.S. history.

“I can only be held accountable for three of those years,” a smiling Gold said after winning her second national title last month.  “That statistic is really sad, but it’s not as if U.S. women have been irrelevant to the sport.

“At this point, we have nothing to lose.  I think it would be great to get two world medals to break the spell.  We could get three.  I think we are all more than qualified.”

Home ice should help, even if the top U.S. woman at the last home worlds (Los Angeles, 2009) was world meet rookie Flatt in fifth.  The difference this time is both Gold (4th, 5th, 6th) and Wagner (5th, 7th, 5th, 4th) have been close to the podium in the last four years.

“It is never a question of whether the U.S. ladies are capable of being on that podium,” Wagner said.  “It’s more a question of when we are going to step up to the challenge.  In years past, consistently we have faltered in one program or the other, so consistency has been the challenge.”

The challenge keeps getting tougher every year, with the seemingly endless supply of talented young Russians and strong groups of young Japanese and South Koreans on the horizon.  No U.S. medal this year could mean none for the foreseeable future.