Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

U.S. Figure Skating Assn. Places Ashley Wagner on 2014 Olympic Team Despite Dismal 4th Place Finish at Nationals

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Folks, right now I’m glad I write a blog where headline length is flexible. Because as you see, what just happened a few, short hours ago would strain the limits of most normal newspaper headlines — former United States champion Ashley Wagner, who finished way behind the top three finishers last night at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, was placed on the Olympic Team anyway and is going to Sochi.

Here’s what happened last night during the Ladies Long Program at the United States Figure Skating Championships in Boston — 18-year-old Gracie Gold won the gold medal with a technically challenging routine, 15-year-old Polina Edmunds won the silver medal with perhaps the most difficult routine, and 20-year-old Mirai Nagasu won the bronze medal in a complete upset. Heavily favored Ashley Wagner, a two-time national champion, finished fourth due to two major falls and under-rotating two other triple jumps instead.**

Usually, when there are three spots on the Olympic Team, the top three at the U.S. Nationals are the people who end up going. However, in this case, that did not happen.

Take a look at the point totals for these four women:

  1. Gracie Gold — 211.69
  2. Polina Edmunds — 193.63
  3. Mirai Nagasu — 190.74
  4. Ashley Wagner — 182.74

In particular, the difference between Edmunds in second place and Nagasu in third was only about three points. Edmunds competed in her very first senior-level event last night in Boston, and while she was impressive, it’s hard to believe she can duplicate her efforts in Sochi. (Mind you, I’d like her to do so — I felt she was light on her feet and had a good, musical style, to boot. But the reason Tara Lipinski’s 1998 Olympic gold medal is still celebrated so many years later is because what Lipinski did at the age of fifteen is rare.)

The U.S. Figure Skating Association thus had a choice: Were they going to name Wagner, who has been heavily promoted in NBC TV advertising? Were they going to name Nagasu, who despite not having a coach (an extreme rarity in elite figure skating) did exceptionally well? Were they going to confirm Edmunds despite her lack of international experience at the senior level?

In other words, the only lock here was Gracie Gold. She won the national championships, fair and square. She has international experience. She was going to Sochi, but everyone else was in doubt.

So when the USFSA decided to name Gold, Edmunds, and Wagner, at least a few eyebrows were raised.

Take a look at this article from Yahoo Sportswriter Martin Rogers:

Ashley Wagner was controversially named to the United States women’s Olympic team on Sunday despite her disappointing fourth-place finish at the U.S. Championships this weekend.

Wagner, the two-time U.S. champion and fifth-place finisher in the World Championships, was awarded the third spot on the roster just hours after being highly critical of her own effort at TD Garden, where the Nationals typically serve as the de facto Olympic trials.

Vancouver Olympian Mirai Nagasu finished third here but will miss out on Sochi, as Gracie Gold, 18, and Polina Edmunds, 15, were awarded the first two spots.

In previous years, the finishing order at the Nationals has generally been used to select the squad, with the only changes coming as a result of injury.

Rogers’ point is that Wagner finished fourth, so she doesn’t deserve to go.

Here’s an opposing view from internationally respected sportswriter Christine Brennan in an article written for USA Today last evening before the official selections were announced:

Ashley Wagner did not skate well Thursday night in the women’s short program at the U.S. figure skating Olympic trials, and she was even worse Saturday night, falling twice.

Still, U.S. Figure Skating should send her to the Sochi Olympic Games . . . One competition, even as big an event as the U.S. nationals, should not mar the best international resume among U.S. women over the past two years . . .

Here’s why the 22-year-old Wagner deserves to go even though she performed poorly here:

She was the two-time defending national champion who has by far the most impressive resume of the bunch. She won the silver medal at the 2012 Grand Prix Final and the bronze at last month’s 2013 Grand Prix Final. These are prestigious, important international events. She has finished fourth and fifth, respectively, at the last two world championships — the best of any American. New national champion Gracie Gold was sixth, right behind Wagner, at the 2013 worlds.

It should be noted that Wagner’s and Gold’s placements there earned the United States the third spot for the Olympic Games, the spot Wagner presumably would fill.

(Note: Ellipses and emphasis added by BC)

So Brennan’s contention is that Wagner is the most consistent of the U.S. ladies — something I firmly agree with — and that as Wagner was part of the reason why the U.S. got three spots in the first place, Wagner should represent the U.S.

My point is a little different, though. I’m not saying Wagner shouldn’t go. I’m saying Edmunds shouldn’t go, mostly because Edmunds has never before skated in a senior event. She may be the next Tara Lipinski, as she herself alluded to last night in NBC’s figure skating coverage — or she could be a huge bust.

Whereas Nagasu finished fourth in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, has proven herself as a figure skater despite all her recent inconsistency (much less her volatility in not currently having a coach), and more to the point is a bit older, besides.

So if you must pick between these four women — a strong supposition — you have consistent skaters in Gold and Wagner, and the biggest wild card extant in either Edmunds or Nagasu.

The USFSA picked Edmunds due to her youth. They figure she will improve. She also speaks Russian, has Russian family members, and probably will get more out of the trip on a personal level than Nagasu — all good.

But I still don’t like what the USFSA did. I think if they were bound and determined to pick Edmunds, they should’ve picked Nagasu as well even though it would’ve really upset the apple cart with NBC (not to mention Wagner, who’s highly regarded in the figure skating community) because logically, it doesn’t scan well any other way.

Because of what the USFSA did today — and the way in which they did it — has reminded me yet again that in figure skating, it’s not what you do so much as who you know that determines our Olympic Team.

And that’s sad.


**Under-rotating jumps, for non-figure skating fans, basically means this — the jumps looked like triples to the naked eye. Wagner attempted to jump cleanly, but instead of the jump grading out as a triple (with three rotations in the air), it instead was a gussied-up double (meaning it was an over-rotated double or an under-rotated triple). Jumps such as these are counted as double jumps rather than triple jumps and get less credit from the judges thereby; further, such under-rotated jumps often get downgraded on the second mark (what used to be called artistic impression) as well in something called “grade of execution.” (Clear as mud, right?)


6 Responses

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  1. That is so sad 😦 I was under the impression that getting into the top 3 at the Championships meant you had automatically earned a spot at the Olympics. If I was Nagasu, I would be pissed off!


    January 12, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    • Hi, Eurobrat.

      The rules — or at least the interpretation of those rules — allow for changes at the discretion of the USFSA. In the past, the USFSA would only “bump” a skater who’d qualified at the Nationals if someone, say, like a former US National Champion was too injured to compete but still was their best available option at the Olympics.

      However, because they have occasionally bumped other skaters off the team before, the USFSA was within its rights to do it again. There is a clause in the rules that says they can take recent international competitions into account — and in the past two years, Ashley Wagner has been the most consistent skater the US has had, far more consistent than Mirai Nagasu.

      Yes, I’d be seriously perturbed, too, in Nagasu’s place (she hasn’t said anything publicly, perhaps because figure skating is such a small world that anything you do say _is_ often held against you; this may be the reason Johnny Weir finished in 6th at the Vancouver Olympics instead of winning a bronze medal like he should’ve). She skated well. She nearly took the _silver_, for pity’s sake, and yet they’re going to leave her home when she’s the only one of the four who had previous Olympic experience.

      Note that I’m keeping an eye on what happens with the men’s Olympic Team announcement, as Jeremy Abbott just won the US Nationals for the men. Jason Brown won the free skate, finishing second; Max Aaron, last year’s national champ, won the bronze and is out in the cold. It’s possible that the USFSA may make another controversial announcement and leave Brown off the team — but I’m hoping they won’t, as *one* controversial announcement should be enough for *anyone*. (Let’s just say the USFSA would’ve rather not had Abbott due to Abbott’s past inconsistency and be done with it, but they don’t have much choice as Abbott looked solid and is now a _four-time_ US National Champ. If they take Abbott off the team, they’ll _really_ raise a stink.)

      Mind you, there was one really phenomenal skate that won’t get much national attention — that being by Douglas Razzano, who’s twenty-five. Razzano skated the best he ever has, and deserved to be on the podium IMO — he appeared to have eight solid triple jumps and I believe he made a quad attempt also — but I believe he finished seventh. Razzano was one of the top four skaters of the day — those being Abbott, Brown, Aaron and Razzano — and yet he was not rewarded.

      Sometimes the USFSA seriously ticks me off.

      Barb Caffrey

      January 12, 2014 at 5:29 pm

      • Yeah, you gotta wonder just how much internal politics is involved here. I think you’re right–a lot of it is about who you know, unfortunately, just like with so many things. And I seriously hope they don’t take Jason Brown off, as I just saw him skate for the first time this weekend and really liked him! Saying this as someone who’s been away from watching figure skating for a long time and is now getting back into it.


        January 14, 2014 at 10:53 pm

  2. Hi again, Eurobrat . . . Jason Brown is on the Olympic Team, officially. I think he’s not on the World Team — Max Aaron is, instead — which is odd. But he is on the Olympic Team, and that’s a good thing. (It’s likely that if Jeremy Abbott goes to the Olympics, that’s going to be it — he may withdraw from the Worlds, so the team going instead could still be Brown and Aaron.)

    Barb Caffrey

    January 14, 2014 at 11:28 pm

  3. I did not get to see the performances, not having a TV right now, but I really have to wonder at their decision not only for the reasons you cite–but because, well…shades of Michelle Kwan and the endorsement kerfuffle. It’s hard not to wonder about race subtly rearing its head. And the irony, as the WSJ article pointed out:

    “But if Wagner’s “all-American” looks played any role in her selection — and of course, we’ll probably never really know — the real irony is this: blue-eyed, blonde Wagner was born in Heidelberg, Germany. Nagasu, meanwhile, was born in Montebello, Calif.”

    Cat Kimbriel

    January 15, 2014 at 10:52 pm

    • It’s quite possible, Kat. NBC really has been heavily promoting Ashley Wagner, so money definitely has played a part in this. And as you said, it’s not been unknown in the past that a “brown skater” (not ethnically Caucasian) has not garnered the endorsements she should.

      Though, granted, neither have all Caucasian skaters — for example, Tonya Harding was petite and blonde, but even before the scandal, she was known as a tomboy who played pool and fixed other people’s cars. Personally, that’s one of the reasons I liked her — but it certainly hurt her when it came time for endorsements, especially when long-legged Nancy Kerrigan was right there, and Kerrigan exuded a type of Grace Kellyish elegance.

      I’m not saying Kerrigan shouldn’t have garnered endorsements, or even that Harding should’ve — I’m saying that the money people attached to figure skating and athletics as a whole seem to have one look in their teensy-tiny heads, and if you don’t embody that — as Nagasu probably doesn’t, as Harding definitely didn’t — you’re screwed.

      And that’s just wrong, even in figure skating.

      Barb Caffrey

      January 16, 2014 at 2:37 am

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