Tennell lone bright spot for U.S. women singles skaters so far in Olympic season

An exultant Bradie Tennell after her bronze-medal performance at Skate America.

An exultant Bradie Tennell after her bronze-medal performance at Skate America.

There was a lot of relief and excitement early last April in Helsinki when World Championships rookie Karen Chen stood up to extra pressure in the free skate created after veteran Ashley Wagner choked (Wagner’s word, not mine).  Chen’s performance gave her fourth place and assured Team USA would have three women’s singles spots at the 2018 Olympics.

The way things look now, U.S. Figure Skating should politely offer that third spot to Japan, which lacked the talent to get three in Helsinki but is flush with top women this season.

With the Grand Prix regular season having ended Sunday at Skate America in Lake Placid, N.Y., not one of the U.S. women who had been considered top contenders for the three spots – Chen, Wagner, Mariah Bell and Mirai Nagasu – has done much this fall to suggest she deserves it.

Meanwhile, Japan had five women with more points in the final Grand Prix standings than the highest U.S. finisher.

Yes, the U.S. places in the standings are skewed because Wagner withdrew injured one-third of the way into her Skate America free skate, and Bradie Tennell, who finished third with two strong, clean skates, competed in just one Grand Prix event.

But the U.S. will have no woman in the Grand Prix Final for the second straight season, the first two-year women’s shutout for the United States in the event’s 23-season history.

Anyone who thinks Wagner might have claimed a spot but for the withdrawal is overlooking the unremarkable technical level of her skating compared to that of the world’s top women this season and last.

In fact, Tennell’s Skate America performance, a strong statement of her case to be part of the 2018 Olympic team, has been the only bright spot for U.S. women singles skaters so far this Olympic season.  No matter who goes to South Korea, it is unlikely any U.S. woman can even make the final group of six for the Olympic free skate.

How did the U.S. get into this predicament?

*Gracie Gold, the most talented U.S. woman since 2013 and top U.S. finisher (fourth) at the 2014 Olympics, stepped away from the sport in September to get therapy for anxiety, eating disorders and depression. Gold’s recent reappearance on social media suggests she is doing better, but she already has withdrawn from the U.S. Championships, one of three Tier 1 events factoring into the 2018 selection process.

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*Polina Edmunds, the baby of the 2014 Olympic team at age 15, sustained a foot injury after her impressive second place to Gold at the 2016 U.S. Championships.  Edmunds missed all last season and has struggled badly in two events this season, falling five times and finishing 13th and 10th.

*Nagasu, a strong fourth in the 2010 Olympics at age 16, went on a month later to win the short program at the World Championships.  But she was a dismal 11th in the free skate, finishing seventh overall and beginning a rough ride over the ensuing seven seasons.  She has made it back to worlds just once, getting 10th in 2016.

*Russia and Japan, with much better-defined and organized development systems, began producing one talented young woman after another.  (In the U.S., it’s pretty much everyone on her own.)

Russian women have dominated the Junior Grand Prix since 2010, never more so than this season.  Japanese women have had far better results on that circuit over that period than anyone else but Russia.  The U.S. has not had a Junior Grand Prix women’s finalist since 2013.

*The long-term prospects for U.S. women seem weak.  In the last four years, no one but Chen, 18, the reigning U.S. champion, and Tennell, 19, has emerged as a potentially strong replacement for 2014 Olympians Wagner, 26, Gold, 22, and Edmunds, 19.  Any one or all of the latter three would not surprise by leaving competitive skating after this season.

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Chen’s poor skating this fall and Tennell’s very short track record (Skate America was Tennell’s senior Grand Prix debut; she was ninth at last season’s nationals) mean neither can claim that role yet.

In the short term, of course, there is the matter of which women go to Pyeongchang.

The assumption is Wagner has a place, by virtue now mainly of being the one-eyed queen in the land of the blind (apologies to Victor Hugo.)

Since winning a silver medal at the 2016 World Championships, breaking a nine-season medal shutout for U.S. women in singles at worlds, the best thing about Wagner’s skating is she has not fallen in her 11 individual-event programs over the past two seasons - which is, in fact, a noteworthy achievement.

Compare that to this season’s U.S. splat count in Grand Prix or Challenger Series events for Chen (two in six programs); Nagasu (three in six); Edmunds (five in four); Courtney Hicks (two in four); Amber Glenn (three in four); and Bell, the third world team member last March (four in six.).  Of the U.S. women who have competed in at least one Grand Prix event this season, only Tennell and Wagner have emerged upright on the Grand Prix and Challenger circuits.

The problem is the technical level of Wagner’s skating – and her execution of the jumps she is doing – is no longer what she needs to be a medal contender.  After the win at last season’s Skate America, Wagner has not been a factor internationally.

She has not had a clean competition in two seasons, with no clean program this season.  Even in winning last season’s Skate America, she had four negative grades of execution in the free skate.

Ashley Wagner tells the referee she is withdrawing from Skate America.  (Getty Images)

Ashley Wagner tells the referee she is withdrawing from Skate America.  (Getty Images)

Her technical element score in the short program at last month’s Skate Canada ranked ninth of 12, in the free skate fourth of 12.  At Skate America, her short program TES was eighth of 11 (well below seventh.) Those scores look even worse when one considers there were two “no-hopers” in both events.

Three-time U.S. champion Wagner managed a bronze medal at Skate Canada despite finishing seventh in the short program and fourth in the free skate.  She dismissed the importance of that subpar skating by calling it a “run through,” an odd way to treat a Grand Prix event.

She vowed to be better at Skate America, saying her conditioning was much improved, and she wanted to show off her hard work.  She never admitted in a Nov. 15 media teleconference (when a reporter specifically asked about her health) that she was dealing with an ankle issue that would turn out to be an infection that kept her from practicing several days and ultimately led to her stop skating after three of a planned seven jumping passes in the free skate.  She did mention it after practice two days before the women’s event began in Lake Placid.

 “I was hoping to be able to mentally push through this, but you know, when you’re out there and you’re in nauseating pain and you have to do a long program, there’s just no point in being in pain,” Wagner said.

Give Wagner props for not making excuses and for trying to compete with pain, but it was odd that she had twice referred to being in better shape than she had been at Skate Canada.

“My main goal is to be national champion and to go to the Olympics, and that’s something that I absolutely can do with the right amount of training,” Wagner said.  “There’s no sense in me going out and competing here, and being in pain, and putting myself through that when this isn’t my goal.  This is a bump in the road.”

Qualifying for the Grand Prix Final would have made Wagner the only U.S. woman to tick off that Tier 1 selection criterion this season.  She has an advantage over all but Chen in a second Tier 1 criterion – finish at last season’s world meet.  And on the Tier 2 level criterion for performances in individual Grand Prix events this season, Wagner ties at the top (a bronze medal) with Tennell.

Chen finished seventh and eighth in her two Grand Prix events, Bell sixth and ninth, Nagasu ninth and fourth - in fields of 11 and 12 skaters.  Chen has changed programs three times (two free, one short) during this season, an antsyness that signals a discomfort level with the spotlight on her since last April.

The final Tier 1 criterion is January’s U.S. Championships, where a top-three finish guarantees Wagner an Olympic spot and a top four likely will do it, since each of the Tier 1 criteria gets equal weight.  But the last thing she wants is to be caught in another controversy like the one in 2014, when USFS justifiably gave Wagner (fourth at nationals) the third spot over Nagasu (third).

The sad thing is which U.S. women get singles spots on the 2018 Olympic team really seems much ado about nothing except personal satisfaction.