Samuel Auxier's four-year term as U.S. Figure Skating president ends Saturday with the election of his successor during the annual Governing Council meeting in Orlando.
Auxier, an international judge, will continue to serve the organization as past president and possibly as head of its International Committee.
With the exception of ice dance, in which U.S. couples have been consistent medal winners at junior and senior global championships for more than a decade, Auxier has presided over four years that have brought decidedly mixed results for U.S. skaters.
The 2018 Olympic Winter Games was a low point for U.S. ladies and pairs, bringing the lowest placement ever for the top U.S. woman (ninth; sixth was the previous low) and the lowest aggregate finish at any of the 16 Olympics in which the U.S. had three women entered; and the lowest placement ever for the top (and, in this case, only) U.S. pair (15th; previous low was 10th).
At 15 global championships since 2006, the U.S. has won just one singles medal at the Olympics (Evan Lysacek's 2010 gold) and four at worlds (golds by Lysacek in 2009 and Nathan Chen this year, bronze by Johnny Weir in 2008 and silver by Ashley Wagner in 2016). The U.S. has not won a ladies medal at the world junior championships since 2012 and has not had a woman at the Junior Grand Prix Final since 2013.
With all that in mind, I sat down last month with Auxier to get his thoughts on the state of the sport in the United States.
PH: How concerned are you with the overall competitive health of U.S. figure skating?
Samuel Auxier: I have been very concerned. When I took office, my belief was that our ability to compete at the lower levels in terms of fundamentals and development already was declining relative to the other top countries.
At one time 10 or 12 years ago, somebody got up at Governing Council and said, "We shouldn't allow juveniles to do double axels because not everybody can do them."
PH: They wanted to penalize excellence in order to reach a lowest common denominator.
Auxier: Exactly. I've tried to think of the root causes of why we haven't been competitive in men's and ladies and pairs, Nathan and Vincent [Zhou] aside, because they are incredible talents. That (jump deficiencies) is one reason. Now we're going to allow triple jumps at the juvenile level because we have girls who can do them, and they should be allowed to.
In the U.S., we have applied ISU (International Skating Union) rules about falls (a one-point deduction) all the way down to the lowest levels. At the less developed levels, that was too much of a penalty for a skater learning jumps. We were discouraging people from trying harder jumps.
We got rid of that at the two lowest levels four years ago and reduced the penalty at novice. Then we added triple jump bonuses at those levels for getting all the way around and landing the jump. This year at nationals, almost all the intermediate and novice singles skaters had at least one triple jump.
The other thing we did last year at the juvenile level was reducing the number of component scores (from five to three) and then heavily weighting the skating skills component.
When I judged the Junior Grand Prix Final, it was shocking to see the Russian and Japanese skaters fly around the ice -- the speed, the edges, the flow -- versus our skaters at the same level. At the development level, we have to go back to those fundamental skills, and the improvement eventually bubbles up to the junior and senior levels.
PH: At the 2016 U.S. Championships, you said, "We have to have men and women that are at the top of the world rankings to really attract attention to the sport. I judge internationally, and I'm a little bit scared at the progress other countries have made. We have to catch up."
So you clearly have had a sense of urgency about this for a while. Do you think there is a similar sense of urgency among the other top U.S. Figure Skating staff and officials, that the sport is at a critical point in this country, especially in terms of declining fan interest, which relates to the lack of U.S. stars?
Auxier: I think the percentage (of those who share the urgency) has increased dramatically over the last year. I think the Olympics may be a turning point. I think that got a lot of people scared. In pairs, a lot of people are shocked at how far we are from the podium.
PH: Let's talk about pairs. No U.S. team has finished higher than seventh at worlds or the Olympics since 2012. The U.S. qualified just one pair (Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim) for the Olympics. In 2019, there will be just one U.S. pair at worlds (something that hasn't happened since 1957) after the two U.S. teams at 2018 worlds were 15th and 17th, a historic low for both the highest U.S. finisher and aggregate finish.
How do you get pairs in the U.S. back to a more respectable level?
Auxier: We have more pairs than any other country in the world, but we have found recently that even though we have had a lot of juvenile and novice pairs, we've had zero move up to junior and senior.
PH: Have you found out why they have stopped?
Auxier: They become pairs at that level so they can make it to nationals. That's their goal. Then they stop.
We had a couple of novice pairs this year with a lot of potential, and we are trying to encourage them to keep going. Though the last 10 or 15 years, we have had a lot of teams that have shown promise break up for various reasons. Chris and Alexa showed tremendous potential, but they had challenges with health the last couple years.
A lot of teams get formed because skaters aren't going to make it as singles skaters. We're trying to encourage some of our stronger skaters, especially strong jumpers, to consider pairs. The funding will be there to try to help some of our teams stay together for a longer period.
Coaches want to have national(-level) skaters. We have a rule that says if there aren't four skaters at an event at regionals or sectionals, they go to nationals. So if there aren't four pairs in sectionals, they go to nationals. A lot of the teams that get sent out to junior worlds have only competed at nationals. One competition is not enough to prepare them.
That's one of the reasons behind the National Qualifying Series of competitions we hope to begin in the 2019-20 season. It would take place in summer, in already existing summer competitions.
We have two junior pairs with a lot of potential (Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov, fifth at 2018 junior worlds; and Sarah Feng and TJ Nyman, eighth at junior worlds). They can jump. Lu (the 2015 U.S. intermediate ladies bronze medalist) and Mitrofanov can do side-by-side triple lutzes. If pairs skaters can't do the triple jumps, they shouldn't even go to worlds. That's 10 to 12 points right off the top if they can't do the jumps.
PH: Does there come a point where you say we don't even want to spend any more money on pairs?
Auxier: We need benchmarks the teams need to hit along the way or the funding goes away. We have to be disciplined enough to do that. In a lot of ways, we've been very nice.
PH: Rafael Arutunian told me he hopes to create a new training center at the four-ice-sheet complex scheduled to open in July 2018 in Irvine, California, where he would be head of a pyramid of coaches working together to develop skaters at all levels. (He envisions 20-30 coaches and dozens of skaters, with perhaps 20 of them at the novice level, 15 juniors and three or four elite seniors.) In turn, the more experienced coaches would develop the younger coaches, and some of them would go on to start their own centers.
It would be similar, on a larger scale, to what he has done the past two years at a Lakewood, California, complex under the same ownership and, in a sense, roughly like the arrangement in some of the Russian skating schools. Can that work in the United States?
PH: Mitch Moyer (U.S. Figure Skating high performance director) is working with the people in Irvine to make sure figure skating is well represented there. I think that will be our second official training center, (along) with the World Arena in Colorado Springs. There are a couple of rinks in Florida that could be a third training center, with hopefully an emphasis on pairs.
(Clarification: U.S. Figure Skating does not have its own officially designated training centers. The World Arena is an official training center for figure skating as part of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.)
PH: Would the coaching model Rafael suggested be workable?
Auxier: The American model doesn't necessarily lend itself well to that. You have to have coaches working together who then have their chance to make money with their own skaters.
PH: Would U.S. Figure Skating help assist young skaters with some of the cost of moving to be at a training center like that?
Auxier: The (U.S. Figure Skating) Foundation is very supportive of the idea. Some of the targeted funding could cover that.
(Note: Auxier said the Foundation, which had assets of $75 million according to its most recent available tax filing (2015), has agreed to commit about $500,000 to develop an elite athlete support fund targeted at up-and-coming skaters in all disciplines who show a lot of promise, like junior ladies Ting Cui and Alysa Liu. He hopes that program will begin this summer.)