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

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

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.

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An old debate about the young in figure skating heats up again: is it time to raise the minimum age for seniors?

An old debate about the young in figure skating heats up again: is it time to raise the minimum age for seniors?

Is it time to raise the age minimum for singles figure skaters in senior international competition?

Rafael Arutunian thinks so. The coach of the only two U.S. skaters to win senior World Championship medals since 2009 brought up the idea unprompted during our lengthy recent conversation at his training base south of Los Angeles.

For a number of reasons, including health, career longevity and competitive equity, Arutunian favors a minimum age of 18 for senior men and women rather than the current 15.

“Everyone now talks about jumping too much and people starting to damage themselves,” Arutunian said.  “How do you want to stop that?  In my mind, there is only one way: not allow them to compete (at seniors) until 18.

“If I am 12 years old, and I know real money is after 18, do you think I will do too many quads, or I will do just enough quads to win and save my body for later?”

Several other coaches and skaters contacted by phone, email or text message, including Alexei Mishin of Russia, Brian Orser of Canada and Tom Zakrajsek of the U.S., agreed with Arutunian, especially where female skaters are concerned.

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Figure skating worlds could bring widespread medal count for USA

Can veteran Jason Brown, seen in a split jump, combine with phenom Nathan Chen to help the U.S. get three men's places in the 2018 Olympics?

Can veteran Jason Brown, seen in a split jump, combine with phenom Nathan Chen to help the U.S. get three men's places in the 2018 Olympics?

The 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships are now in the books, and after yet another successful affair -- which saw Nathan Chen shatter numerous records en route to the senior men's gold medal, and the Shibutanis continue their U.S. dance reign -- here are five thoughts I have about the event in Kansas City.

1. The United States has a chance to do something rare in its recent figure skating history at the world championships in March: win medals in three separate events.

Those medals, should U.S. skaters earn them, would come from singles -- with Ashley Wagner and Nathan Chen -- and dance -- with Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani and/or Madison Chock and Evan Bates.

That has not happened since 2006, when it did in the same events. Kimmie Meissner and Sasha Cohen won gold and bronze, respectively, while Evan Lysacek earned the men's bronze medal, and Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto received bronze in dance.

Considering the United States has won world medals in two events just once since 2006 (last year, with Wagner earning the silver, the Shibutanis winning silver and Chock and Bates picking up the bronze) and just one medal in singles since 2009, medals in three events would be quite impressive.

2. U.S. Figure Skating's international committee got it right on all the world team selections.

The committee had no choice but to bypass two-time U.S. champion Gracie Gold, notwithstanding her having ticked off higher marks in as many or more boxes on the selection criteria list than either new U.S. champion Karen Chen or bronze medalist Mariah Bell. Gold, who finished sixth at the U.S. championships, showed no signs all season of being able to perform remotely near her past excellence.

Would Mirai Nagasu, 10th at worlds last year, have been a better pick than Bell? Not based on Nagasu's uninspired free skate in Kansas City, with several under-rotations and negative Grades of Execution after a strong second in the short program. She had a world team place in her hands and let it slip away.

In men's, the choice of U.S. bronze medalist Jason Brown, a veteran with Olympic and world meet experience, over silver medalist Vincent Zhou was also justified if the goal is to get three Olympic spots for 2018. Zhou, 16, has yet to skate in a senior international event; as of now, he does not even have the technical minimums for worlds.

Granting the world team petition of Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim in pairs was also logical. Although they have been out of action all season because of Alexa's surgery, the Knierims are by far the most talented U.S. pair, and their record over the time period used in the selection criteria is far superior to that of any pair who competed in Kansas City.

The dance selection was easy. The three teams with the most noteworthy achievements, past and present, finished 1-2-3.

3. Odd as it seems, the U.S may have a greater chance at getting three Olympic singles spots in the men's event than the ladies.

To get three, the 2017 worlds placings of the top two finishers must add up to 13 or fewer: second and 11th, fifth and eighth, fourth and ninth, etc.

Although this is Chen's first senior worlds, he was second in the Grand Prix Final and should -- barring a few bad days in Helsinki -- finish no lower than fifth. Brown was fourth in the 2015 worlds and, even if he cannot manage a quad, has a good shot at eighth or better. After all, Adam Rippon finished sixth at worlds last year with no quads in the short program and an under-rotated one in the free skate.

Wagner, the reigning world silver medalist, probably needs to get another medal for the U.S. women to have a shot at three Olympic places. Senior worlds debutantes Chen and Bell have had completely unremarkable senior international careers so far, save for Bell's second-place finish at Skate America last October.

One of the aforementioned skaters will almost certainly have to break into the top 10 if the U.S. total is to stay under 14. With Wagner, three Russians, three Japanese skaters, two Canadians and Italy's Carolina Kostner favored (on paper) to finish ahead of Chen and Bell, that won't be easy.

4. Now that Gold and coach Frank Carroll have split, where will Gracie go next?

The best bet is back to Alex Ouriashev, who coached Gold until they suddenly split in September 2013. That would put Gold in the Chicago area, meaning it would be easy for her to also spend some time in Canton, Michigan, where artistry guru and ice dance coach Marina Zoueva attracts a rotating cavalcade of stars from all of figure skating's disciplines.

Big props to Gold for the way she publicly handled her disastrous season. She ducked no questions, offered no excuses and made no attempt to paint over the obvious holes in her performances this season.

Admitting problems is often a key step in solving them. One should be easy to overcome: Gold needs to get herself in better competitive condition before next season. Both Ouriashev and Carroll told me Gold was not in the same shape she had been in previous years. She clearly ran out of gas near the end of her free skate at the U.S. championships, and stumbled to a sixth-place finish because of it.

5. Over the past 37 years, I've had the good fortune of being a first-hand witness to several indelibly brilliant moments in figure skating, especially at the 32 United States championships I have covered.

The latest was being on hand to see what Nathan Chen did Friday and Sunday at the Sprint Center, especially from the stunning perspective provided by the Kansas City organizers and U.S. Figure Skating, who put the media in seats right next to the ice -- the closest-to-the-action seat I have ever had at the event.

Chen rolled off seven clean quads so effortlessly -- two in the short program, a history-making five in the free skate -- that the inclination was to think they were triples. At some point, as my jaw dropped to the floor, I found myself chuckling at just how easily he was doing what would be considered incredible by any standard of any sport you choose.

As Chen was first to admit, the program had lacunae on the presentation side, which he explained by saying, "Stuff happens when you're pushing the technical elements to the max."

It seems likely that he or others will reach that jumping max again -- or even top it. That will never lessen the awe and delight I had watching him do it for the first time, as witnessing greatness is unforgettable, a privilege and just plain fun.

(This article originally appeared on icenetwork.)