Quick Thoughts on the 2018 US Ladies’ Olympic Team

Last night, I wrote half a post about ice dance. This morning, after the official announcement of the three ladies who will represent the United States at the Olympic Games, I knew I had to click the “Save Draft” button in WordPress and get with current events. Part of me would rather be nitpicking r(h)umbas, but nobody¬†really¬†feels like rehashing the short dance at the moment, do they? Not in the wake of a ladies’ free skate so intense that Shadowcat and I ordered a bottle of Rumchata from Amazon Prime Now so we could process our feelings with the right balance of sugar and alcohol in our bloodstreams.

A lot of the outrage – and the excitement – about the ladies’ podium and resulting team selection comes from strongly held fan preferences, and I’m no exception there. But I’m coming from a different angle than most of Twitter, as usual. Almost any team would have sparked controversy, and the choice to send the top three finishers was the expected one: Bradie Tennell, Mirai Nagasu, and Karen Chen all did their jobs and got rewarded. My goal on this blog is to be as impartial as possible, to celebrate good performances regardless of who my emotional favorites are, and to gently criticize athletes I love when I think they need improvement. I was a university writing instructor for over a decade; I’ve talked through C+ papers with students I’m still friends with on Facebook, and I’ve given A’s to individuals whom I hope I never encounter on the street. It’s hard to maintain the same attitude toward sports, but striving for it has made me appreciate figure skating more, because it keeps me from dismissing anyone out of hand.

Let’s face it, though – I am a Mirai Nagasu fan. I’ve been high on Mirai since she won her first surprise Nationals as a junior, and I was on the front lines of the hand-wringing wuzrobbed squad in 2014. I’ve always been partial to more muscular, athletic ladies’ skaters; Surya Bonaly and Midori Ito were the ones I looked up to when I was a child participating in the sport, and I see much of both of them in Nagasu’s skating. I’ve always preferred comic book heroines over princesses. When Nagasu’s scores came up last night, boosting her well past the 200-point mark and all but guaranteeing her a trip to Pyeongchang, I had everything I needed as a fan. The rest of the night was basically, “Who’s going to the Olympics with Mirai?” and I was fine with all of the possible outcomes.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m fond of Ashley Wagner, too. At 2016 Worlds, I wore red lipstick to the ladies’ events and handed out Ashley buttons to everyone in my section. But she’s had a weak season, marred by injury and some self-promotion strategies that I might have steered her away from if she’d asked me, which she certainly hasn’t. She’s great, but lately, she’s been less great than I’ve wanted her to be. When people have asked me about my ideal Olympic team, I’ve started with Mirai and ended with “the Ashley Wagner from a couple of years ago.” I was hoping she’d rise to the occasion yesterday and earn an Olympic spot. With a popped salchow and careless level drops on a couple of non-jump elements, as well as choreography that felt like an unfocused rough draft, I sensed in the moment that she hadn’t done enough.

Again, I was sad about that. But a few minutes earlier, Starr Andrews had skated the lights out, earning five more points in technical elements than Wagner had. After Wagner skated, I was more excited about Andrews than about her. For those of you bellyaching about who was robbed on program components: if Andrews’s PCS had been on par with Wagner’s, she’d be the first Black athlete since Debi Thomas to represent the United States in ladies’ figure skating at an Olympic Games. Andrews blew away both Wagner and Karen Chen in the free skate, from a technical standpoint, but lagged behind both by 8-10 points on her second mark. I understand Andrews’ components scores, as her choreography and transitions are simpler and her interpretation less mature than others’, but if anyone got held back on her second mark this year, it was Andrews.

This brings us to the two athletes who have become points of contention. Let’s start with Karen Chen, whose biggest crime was not skating quite as well as she did last year, and as a hometown favorite. Chen’s rotations have always been tight when she’s nervous, and she got nailed on those “hidden” errors. They weren’t so hidden, though; most of her short rotations were visible from the stands, and as with most skaters who have been terrific otherwise, my response in the moment was to shrug and hope the judges gave her a pass. That performance, in and of itself, was electrifying. I didn’t stand up for Wagner, but Chen’s skate moved me to my feet at the end. She was fast, poised, and powerful. Oddly enough, a bronze medal takes the pressure off of Chen in Pyeongchang, and she’s most successful when she feels like she has nothing to lose.

Like everyone else, I’m still getting my head around Bradie Tennell, National Champion. My whiplash comes from a different angle, though, because I’ve been talking her up for years, to a chorus of eyerolls and “Who?” I remember watching her take bronze as a novice in 2013, noting her errors but also recognizing that she was the one with the technique and the presence to go somewhere. A couple of years later, she blew away the pre-anointed favorite, Vivian Le, to capture gold in what might have been the biggest junior ladies’ upset at Nationals since Nagasu’s win in 2007. Unfortunately, she never made a mark internationally as a junior, held back often by injury and occasionally by nerves. But junior-level success has always been a poor predictor of how an athlete will transition to seniors, and Tennell has enjoyed nothing but success as a senior. She took bronze (and saved face for the USA) at her Grand Prix debut at Skate America; she medaled at her first senior international assignment ever, the 2017 Tallinn Trophy; I will die on a hill shouting that she was robbed of another bronze at the Lombardia Trophy earlier this season. Say what you want about her styling or her understated presence as a performer, but she shows up and does her job. American figure skating has been looking for an athlete as unruffled and consistent as Tennell for years. Can we all stop whining and celebrate that she’s peaking at the right moment?

The sun is shining in San Jose. I have a few precious hours until the men’s free skate crushes my soul. Mirai Nagasu is getting her comeback Olympics. I, for one, feel like it’s a good morning to be a figure skating fan.

7 thoughts on “Quick Thoughts on the 2018 US Ladies’ Olympic Team”

  1. I’m with you. All I wanted was for Mirai to make the team. I am underwhelmed while watching Bradie, she’s a little like Sotskova for me. The jumps are there but I find the programs so boring. I hope she comes into her own over the next few seasons. Karen vs Ashley for the third spot was a bit of a coin toss. Neither one has been great this season. The judges could have probably given Ashley a few more points in PCS if they had really wanted her on the team. Karen definitely wins on the body of work criteria. I feel bad for Ashley but it was her spot to lose and she did.

    1. The comparison between Bradie and Maria Sotskova is a good one. Neither is the most inspiring, but they’re both extremely consistent and tick all the boxes that the judges are looking for. It was already clear at the gala that the marketing focus will be more on Mirai, who is by far the bigger personality.

      I’m going to expand on this more in a future post, but I dislike the narrative that the judges were somehow withholding points from Ashley. Her performance quality and even her skating skills weren’t at the level they were at a couple of seasons ago. They were judging based on what they saw, rather than on her reputation, which is unusual but the way it should be!

      1. I agree that that scoring on content versus reputation is how PCS should be, it just so often isn’t. I actually totally agree with the judging here and don’t think they were withholding points. I simply meant that if USFS had really wanted her on the team they could have thrown in a few more points her way and it wouldn’t necessarily have seemed out of place. I have no problem with the outcome here at all.

  2. Starr Andrews. Finally. Seeing her was magical as I am accustomed to her leaving points on the ice. Her senior debut made me nervous, especially after her opening jump. She held it together so beautifully. Her artistry, costume and sometimes, muted, enthusiasm were a joy. It was wonderful seeing her remain on the leader board at third after two, three (?) other skaters. No chance she will be an alternate? Nah, guess not. A lot happens waiting for the next Winter Olympics and I hope she will be ready for 2022 when she is 20.

    Mirai. Another–Finally. I prayed Hail Marys for this woman and I am so happy they were answered. Her gentle, yet fierce spirit has always captured my attention. I am so very happy to have her on my Olympic figure skating team.

    Happy for Bradie.

    1. USFSA often meets with junior-level athletes in advance and agrees with them to put them on a Junior Worlds track regardless of placement. That’s why Vincent Zhou went to Junior Worlds instead of senior Worlds last season. Starr is eligible to compete internationally as a senior – she had a Challenger Series assignment to establish her minimum scores – but she’s also the USA’s best shot at a respectable junior-level result this year. As cool as it would have been to see her at the Olympics, I think it’s a smart strategic move. And I have no problem with lower PCS that reflect her junior-level interpretation and transitions.

      I’m happy for the whole team! It’s hard to wrap our heads around, but Bradie and Karen have been working hard for years to get here – they’re not “out of nowhere.” And I’m not a praying person, but I might have mumbled a few words in Hebrew for Mirai’s triple Axel…

      1. Been praying in every language I know, including enough Hebrew, for Marai and Starr for years. Will continue to do so. And, for you, as well. You are an amazing writer and I always look forward to your Finer Sports. Tried Twitter, eh. Facebook, uh, no. Very glad you got to US; going to Olympics? How do your cats feel about that? You got ice-skates for Hanukkah for 2016; are you any better? Congratulations on your magical career. I am as proud of you as I am for our team and to 2022. Hope everyone stays healthy, wealthy and, yeah, wise.

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