Earlier this season, U.S. Figure Skating changed its senior world team selection rules to deny a guaranteed place for the reigning national champion.
The change was made, according to a USFS document approved in December, “to select the athletes who will have the best chance for success at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships to win the maximum number of medals and future berths for the World and Olympic Team the following season.”
It was made just in case the winner at nationals was a fluke (or, more politely, a surprise), someone whose past international record gave no strong indication of success at the World Championships.
Someone like Karen Chen.
Her performances in both programs at last month’s U.S. Championships in Kansas City were undeniably brilliant – by far the best of her career.
Her performances in this week’s Four Continents Championships on the 2018 Olympic rink in Gangneung, South Korea, were undeniably dismal: 12th in the short program, with a fall and a watered-down combination; 10th in Saturday’s free skate, when she omitted the planned opening combination, did an invalid element and had four sloppy jumping passes (out of seven).
Overall, with a 12th place that matched her finish at last year’s Four Continents, Chen looked like the skater who had been consistently mediocre this season and last – with the exception of the 2017 nationals.
That should get USFS officials thinking of a future change in its world team selection rules so the results of Four Continents can be taken into consideration - for all disciplines, not just women's singles. After all, it will be more than two months from the end of nationals to the start of worlds.
(This is not as relevant for the Olympic team picks, since the Winter Games are about six weeks after nationals, and many Olympics-bound skaters skip a Four Continents competition crammed between the U.S. Championships and the Winter Games. The earliest it could go into effect would be the 2018-19 season.
(And it will be complicated, as my colleague Jackie Wong of Rocker Skating noted, because of the current system under which the designated world team skaters can decide themselves about going to Four Continents. Perhaps USFS will have to name at nationals the skaters who are certain to go to worlds and one or two who are "on the bubble" and create the Four Continents team accordingly.)
One bad competition should not be enough to change minds. But when failure is part of a pattern rather than an anomaly, the federation would be better served with some wiggle room, especially since the selection process already is highly subjective.
As the rules stand now, the only way for USFS to change the world selections that its international committee made at nationals is if a skater is “injured and/or ill to the extent that requires surgery and/or ongoing medical treatment and/or is otherwise unable to train consistently, effectively, and according to their seasonal plan, and which may therefore jeopardize the athlete’s ability to compete for Team USA.”
Any skater who disagrees with a removal decision has the right to a hearing.
This season, the issue of Olympic berths is paramount. To get three, the two best finishes of the U.S. entrants at worlds must add up to 13 or less.
Can the U.S. women’s team of Ashley Wagner (who skipped Four Continents to concentrate on worlds), Chen and Mariah Bell do that next month in Helsinki?
The Four Continents results suggest it is unlikely.
Would world team first alternate Mirai Nagasu, who won bronze at Four Continents with career-best overall and free skate scores, give the U.S. a better chance if she went in Chen’s place? (Or Bell’s, for that matter, after her mediocre sixth-place skating at Four Continents?)
No way to be sure, but as of now that seems probable.
Of course, Nagasu hardly been a paragon of consistency. She finished no higher than fifth in three Grand Prix competitions the past two seasons, and she gave away the final place on this year’s world team with a poor free skate at nationals, allowing Bell to overcome Nagasu’s eight-point lead after the short program. Nagasu cost herself at least the silver medal at this Four Continents with a botched jump in the short program.
What Nagasu does have is experience, while both Bell and Chen will be making their senior world debut next month - with the added pressure of trying to get three Olympic spots. Nagasu has competed in two worlds, including last year’s (10th place), and the 2010 Olympics, where she was fourth.
Bell and Chen admitted to feeling pressure at Four Continents with nothing more than her own performance at stake. Each gave a candid assessment of that and her skating.
“There were a few pretty big mistakes, but overall, this was the most pressure I think I’ve had in an event. . . I think I’ll be able to manage my nerves a little bit better for worlds,” said Bell, making her international championship debut at Four Continents.
“I’m disappointed in how my performances went here in Korea, but I’m happy that I can go home and start to work things out before worlds, so I can definitely put out two better performances there,” she said.
“I’m going to work on my consistency and get my confidence up. I’m going to believe in myself. I’m going to be confident so that when I come to compete, those nerves aren’t there anymore.”
Add those who weren’t at Four Continents - three Russians, Italy’s Carolina Kostner, Japan’s Satoko Miyahara and other European skaters -- to the field, and there is no way Bell or Chen can make the top 10 at worlds if each skates the way she did in South Korea. That would mean Wagner, the reigning silver medalist, must win at least another silver medal – no mean feat – for the U.S. to have a shot at the three Olympic spots.
Indulge me in the necessarily futile but still entertaining exercise of comparing scores:
Bell’s score (177.10) at this Four Continents would have placed her seventh at this year’s European Championships and 13th at last year’s worlds. Chen’s (166.82) would have been ninth at European’s and 14th at last year’s worlds. Nagasu’s (194.95) would have been fourth at Europeans and 10th at last year’s worlds, where she took that place with a score more than eight points lower.
It has been a struggle for U.S. women at global championships since 2006. Wagner’s world silver last year ended a nine-season U.S. women’s medal drought at worlds and Olympics.
The rise of Russia and Japan has made earning three Olympic spots a challenge for Team USA rather than the foregone conclusion it had been for all but two Olympics (2010 and 1994) since World War II. USFS realized that in changing the selection rules. The next logical step would be to avoid a rush to judgment in making the picks.