For U.S. women figure skaters, Four Continents opens with triple trouble

Different year, same result:  Karen Chen, shown falling on a jump while finishing 12th at last year's Four Continents Championships.  She did it again Thursday while finishing 12th in the Four Continents short program.

Different year, same result:  Karen Chen, shown falling on a jump while finishing 12th at last year's Four Continents Championships.  She did it again Thursday while finishing 12th in the Four Continents short program.

The reason why I wrote last month after the U.S. Championships that U.S. men had a better chance of getting three 2018 Olympic figure skating spots than U.S. women was clear again Thursday.

And, coincidentally, that clarity came on the rink in Gangneung, South Korea, where the 2018 Olympic figure skating will take place.

I’m not foolhardy enough to suggest that the results of one short program at the Four Continents Championships should be seen as indisputable evidence of big trouble.  Saturday’s free skate could provide a more optimistic indication.

So let’s just say the performances of two of the three U.S. women were troublesome, because either Karen Chen or Mariah Bell (or both) will be critical to the three-spots effort next month at the World Championships in Helsinki.

Here’s the deal: the standings of the top two U.S. women in Helsinki – Chen, Bell and reigning world silver medalist Ashley Wagner, who skipped Four Continents to concentrate on worlds – must add up to 13 or fewer for the U.S. to earn three Olympic spots.  That could be second and 11th, sixth and seventh, etc.

Both Chen, the new U.S. champion, and Bell will be going to Helsinki as senior worlds debutantes.  Bell had never competed in any international championship until this Four Continents meet; Chen had been to last year’s Four Continents, finishing 12th, and two junior worlds, finishing ninth and eighth.

Bell was the more respectable of the two Thursday, winding up seventh (61.21 points) after a program with just one major flaw (step out on triple flip).  But she looked uneasy on all her jumps and did just a triple-double combination, which would barely cut it on the junior level.

“I’m pretty bummed,” Bell said, then added, “I feel like once I finish the short, there’s a little weight off my shoulders.  Long is an easier program for me to do, so I’m really excited for it.”

Chen had a disastrous skate, taking 12th with 55.65 points, far behind the two Canadians – Gabrielle Daleman (68.25) and Kaetlyn Osmond (68.21) – who stand 1-2 despite having made one huge mistake each.  Chen made a hash of her watered-down opening combination (3-2 instead of 3-3) and fell on her triple loop.

“It was definitely a rough performance,” Chen said.  “I came here with higher expectations, and I was hoping I would be able to put out my best. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. As for the long, I hope to keep my head held high and keep pushing myself forward.”

The most worrisome part about Chen’s skating is that it mirrored nearly all her performances the past two seasons, making her brilliance at the U.S. Championships seem like a one-off anomaly.

Since the worlds field will also include three Russians, Italy’s Carolina Kostner, and, probably, the best Japanese woman (Satoko Miyahara withdrew from Four Continents with an injury), it is very evident Chen or Bell could struggle to make the top 10 there.  That would put enormous pressure on Wagner, who had home-ice advantage last season as she became the first U.S. woman to win a world or Olympic medal since 2006.

Should neither Chen nor Bell rally in the Four Continents free skate, will one of them have a mysterious injury or illness between now and worlds, allowing U.S. Figure Skating to turn to first alternate Mirai Nagasu, a veteran of two worlds and an Olympics who was 10th at the 2016 worlds?

Of course, Nagasu didn’t exactly set the house on fire in Thursday’s short program, taking fifth (62.91) after two-footing the landing of an under-rotated triple loop.  She was, however, the only U.S. woman to land a triple-triple.

“Overall I’m feeling really confident,” Nagasu said.

Which brings us to Gracie Gold.  (Doesn’t everything?)

Last week, as NBC marked one year to the 2018 Olympics, it was Gold in the spotlight of their coverage.  The network’s hype for Gold is longstanding, but, ironically, it happened this time because her skating this season was so poor she had plenty of free time to go to New York, having failed to make the teams for worlds or Four Continents.

The two-time U.S. champion’s undoing was largely caused by her own surprising – and admitted - indifference.  The two coaches who had worked with her this season, Frank Carroll and Alex Ouriashev, both told me last month Gold was not in shape.  She also alluded to that at Skate America last fall and expanded upon it in an excellent story by icenetwork’s Lynn Rutherford last week.

"I was floating, untethered -- that's the word I was kind of throwing out, and it was true," Gold told Rutherford. "I wasn't looking ahead. I didn't have a game plan.

"Jetting off to Western Europe for two weeks and not skating at the end of July, four weeks before Champs Camp -- my bad," Gold continued. "There were just opportunities. I wasn't looking (ahead); I was like, 'Oh yeah, let's go.' I didn't have the full plan.

"I am seeing all the way to South Korea now.  If something doesn't fit, if it doesn't feel right at all, it's not even there."

Gold could not have picked a worse year to go walkabout if she wants to be in South Korea.  Her finishes in the past four worlds – fourth, fourth, fifth, sixth - helped the U.S. both regain (in 2013) the third women’s spot it had lost for four years and then keep it every year since – including at the 2014 Olympics.

There is a good chance Gold could be competing for one of only two Olympic spots next season.  As she moves to new coaches and a new home in suburban Detroit, the view of herself in South Korea next winter seemed a little murkier because of what happened there in her absence Thursday.