Proposal to raise minimum age for senior events brings figure skating back to the future

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Well, she was just seventeen
You know what I mean
And the way she looked was way beyond compare

                                   -- the Beatles, "I Saw Her Standing There"

Jeroen Prins long has been deeply involved in figure skating, with a wide range of expertise.

Prins, 54, was a national-level skater in the Netherlands who now is an international referee and technical controller in singles, a technical controller in pairs and a judge in ice dance.  He holds several positions in the figure skating section of the Dutch Skating Federation and is a candidate for membership on the International Skating Union’s singles and pairs technical committee.  He is a figure skating commentator for Eurosport Netherlands.

And Prins had been thinking long, hard and deeply about the issue of minimum age in senior figure skating before writing the urgent proposal to raise it to 17 that the Dutch federation submitted to the ISU Congress that begins June 4 in Seville, Spain.

“I has this idea in mind already at the start of this past Olympic season, but I wanted to see how everything unfolded,” Prins said in an email.

What unfolded was the second youngest women’s Olympic champion in history, 15-year-old Alina Zagitova of Russia.  And the top two women (girls?) at the World Junior Championships, also both Russians, were 13 and 14.  And the top three women at the Junior Grand Prix Final, all Russians (the top two were the same as at junior worlds), were 13, 14, 13.

One of those three, world junior champion Alexandra Trusova, did two quadruple jumps in her winning free skate at the world juniors.  Since then, video has been posted of another Russian – Anna Shcherbakova, 14, who did not compete in the 2017 world juniors or the 2017 Junior Grand Prix series – doing a clean quad lutz-triple toe-triple loop combination in practice.

So Prins decided the time was right to ask that the ISU raise the minimum age for seniors in all disciplines from 15 to 17 as of the 2020-21 season, with the two-year wait designed to prevent any 15- or 16-year-olds already in seniors from being forced back to the junior level.

  Jeroen Prins as a competition official.

Jeroen Prins as a competition official.

And he thinks it was important that the proposal came from a federation that does not have medal-contending skaters in major international events.

“I believe if USA or Canada would send in this proposal, it would be perceived as directly anti-Russia, so coming from a small (figure skating) federation may increase the chances of it passing,” Prins wrote, adding that he has no idea what the outcome will be.

I asked him in a subsequent email if the success of young Russian women and girls this season was the critical piece of what had unfolded.  Did it convince him the time was right to propose the higher age, especially since Russia lately has been developing scads of talented young female skaters.

“This proposal is not directed against Russia or against anyone, but the development of very young skaters landing quads accelerated the timing of it,” Prins answered.  “We need to think about the image of our sport to the outside world.

“If we waited two more years we would be in the middle of the next Olympic cycle (2022), so it is better to have the discussion taking place now.”

The Dutch urgent proposal reads, in part, “At Senior Championships and the OWG (Olympic Winter Games), we need to show mature skaters with well-balanced programs.  This will improve the image of our sport: media and audience would like to see `idols’ who compete for a longer period of time.

“Younger skaters are able to show more difficult elements until they are fully matured.  Therefore we are currently losing Seniors skaters who are afraid they cannot compete with these younger skaters in Senior Events.”

In my recent story exploring the issue of raising the age minimum for seniors, with coach Rafael Arutunian advocating for age 18 and others agreeing with that or suggesting 16 or 17, I quoted a number of coaches who felt the rationale about the difficulty for women to compete with girls that would be cited in the Dutch proposal was among good reasons to make the change.  Another was risk of injury from intense training for young athletes in whom growth plates had not fully fused and bone density development was being impeded.

From a historical perspective, there is some irony in the idea that raising the minimum age now is meant to curtail the Russian dominance of female singles skating – despite Russian choreographer Ilya Averbukh’s erroneous assertion that no one cared when the U.S. was the beneficiary of having lots of female talent in its early teens.

When similar discussions about minimum age resulted in a series of changes from 1996 to 2001, a group of young U.S. girls whom Dick Button called “baby ballerinas” were taking over the sport.  They included Tara Lipinski, who became the youngest world (14) and Olympic champion (15); Michelle Kwan, world champion at 15; Sarah Hughes, a senior worlds skater at 13 and Olympic champion at 16; and Sasha Cohen, 15 when she finished second at the 2000 U.S. Championships (but too young to compete at senior worlds, because she was not 15 by July 1 of the year before.)

An ISU congress had raised the minimum age from 14 to 15 effective for the 1996-97 season, with exceptions.  One exception allowed those who already had skated in senior events to stay at that level.  Another gave senior eligibility to anyone who had won medals at the junior world meet.  The first of those exceptions expired naturally over time.  The second was eliminated beginning with the 2000-01 season.

  Alysa Liu won the 2018 U.S. junior title at age 12 with seven triple jumps in the free skate.  (Jay Adeff - U.S. Figure Skating)

Alysa Liu won the 2018 U.S. junior title at age 12 with seven triple jumps in the free skate.  (Jay Adeff - U.S. Figure Skating)

In the first two Olympics after those changes took place, the women’s medalists were 24, 21, 27 (2006) and 19, 19, 24 (2010).  (The best skater in the world in 2006, Japan’s Mao Asada, then 15, could not compete in the Olympics because she missed the age minimum cutoff date by some three months.  At that time, the minimum age for senior Grand Prix events was 14, and Asada won that season’s Grand Prix Final.  The minimum for all senior events was not harmonized at 15 until nearly 10 years later.)

The 2014 Olympic women’s champion was 17, followed by medalists who were 23 and 27; the 2018 Olympic medalists, in order of finish, were 15, 18, 22.

The second great leap forward of young teens took place after 2014.  It shows no signs of slowing, especially in Russia and Japan but also including U.S. phenom Alysa Liu, the 2018 national junior champion who does not turn 13 until August.

In the chapter “Girls versus Ladies” of her 2003 book “Culture on Ice,” author Ellyn Kestnbaum traces the age changes and finds it important to note they were not implemented just as a reaction to Lipinski, since they came before she won her world (1997) and Olympic (1998) titles.

“What is less clear,” Kestnbaum wrote, “is whether the motivation of the ISU congress that adopted the age limits was primarily to protect young skaters from excessive demands so early in their careers; to protect the image of skating as a sport that welcomed adults rather than children at the highest levels; to stem the tide of exceptionally young champions cashing in on fleeting competitive fame as (Oksana) Baiul (1994 Olympic champion at 16) and later Lipinski did; to lessen the advantage of the American team with its seemingly endless supply of young female skaters emerging each year, over countries with smaller pools pf skaters who might require longer to reach their competitive peaks (italics mine); or to reserve young talent to make Junior Worlds and the expanding series of junior international events that the ISU was in the process of developing more attractive to television broadcasters.”

Kestnbaum also pointed out that three of the baby ballerinas – Cohen; Deanna Stellato, 15 when she won a junior world silver medal in 2000; and Naomi Nari Nam, 13 when she finished second at 1999 U.S. nationals – all withdrew from the 2001 U.S. Championships with injuries.  The author attributed that partly to a desire to emulate the early success of skaters like Kwan and Lipinski by doing “ever-harder jumps and jump combinations at ever-younger ages.”

“It is likely more than coincidence that injuries have taken such a toll on this generation,” Kestnbaum posited.

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Cohen healed well enough to become a 2002 Olympian and 2006 Olympic silver medalist.  Stellato would be out of competitive skating for 15 seasons before returning in pairs (she will begin season three as a pairs skater this fall.)  Nari Nam was out for two seasons before coming back for one year in singles and three in pairs, with decent if unremarkable results.

Change the country from the United States to Russia and the names from Lipinski and Nari Nam and Stellato to Zagitova, Julia Lipnitskaia and Polina Tsurskaya, and it is clear the issues about young champions and injuries are similar.

To be clear: in her first senior season, 2017-18, Zagitova did not lose time to injury.  But Lipinski, who never did just two jumps in practice when she could do 20, left the sport with hip problems after winning the Olympics.  And 2018 Olympic silver medalist Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia, who won her first of two consecutive world titles as a senior debutante at age 16 in 2016, was set back by foot and back issues last season.

No Olympic champion ever has done programs with the jump difficulty of those Zagitova magnifcently performed to win the 2018 Olympic title.  Yet those jumps may soon look passé if the quad revolution that has swept men’s skating has the same impact on women’s singles.

Brian Orser, who two weeks ago became Medvedeva’s coach and has coached Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan to consecutive Olympic gold medals (at ages 19 and 23), favors raising the age limit to 18 for women because the younger skaters have morphology advantages for jumping that have made women’s singles “two different events.”

But Orser understands that if things remain as they are, the young phenoms and their coaches know successful quads can be a winning strategy, just as backloading the free skate jumps was for Zagitova.

“If you can do quads at a young age (safely), then work the system at it is,” Orser said in a text message.  “We all want to win.

“Women and quads - we really don’t know how they will continue as they mature. . .I guess we will see.

“Do I think girls skating and women skating are different?  Yes I do.  Do I prefer women skating?  Yes I do.  However for the time being, I marvel at these jumps the young ones are doing.”

With apologies to Shakespeare: some in figure skating find the time being is out of joint.  Jeroen Prins has made a proposal he hopes could help to set it right.