What Happened to U.S. Women's Figure Skating?


Another Olympic figure skating
competition has ended and the main controversy seems to be trying to figure out
whether the Russians rigged the competition in favor of 17-year-old Adelina
Sotnikova. (Good luck proving that with anonymous score sheets.) But lost in
all the commotion is the fact that the U.S. women’s team will leave the Games
empty-handed. Again.

The last podium finish for the
American women in world or Olympic competition was in 2006 when Kimmie
Meissener won the world title. Since that competition, the U.S. women have the
distinction of being the “best of the rest,” stuck solidly in the 4th-7th
place grouping, just off of the podium.

This has led to no shortage of
anxiety amongst the powers that be (and sponsors) and the women’s side of the
sport. It also probably influenced how this year’s Olympic team was selected;
the committee bypassed third-place finisher Mirai Nagasu for former national
champion Ashley Wagner, who they believed had a better
at placing higher in Sochi.

But Wagner placed 7th
yesterday after the ladies free skate. Polina Edmunds, the 15-year-old newcomer
was 9th, and Gracie Gold, the 2014 U.S. national champion ended up
in fourth place, just off of the podium. Gold had been the Americans’ best
chance to win a medal of any color in Sochi. And so the drought continues.

Why has the U.S., which has won
more ladies gold medals than any other country, struggled in the last decade to
produce (as though figure skaters are an economic good) world and Olympic

Jennifer Kirk, a 2000 junior world
champion, three-time world championship team member, and the co-founder of The Skating Lesson, one of the most
popular figure skating analysis sites, recalled competing during the Michelle Kwan-Sasha
Cohen era, when the U.S. consistently found itself in the medal hunt. “I think
that motivated someone like myself to push myself to be better because I always
knew that there were three or four girls in the mix that were going to do
really well internationally and were dominating the sport,” she recalled. Back
in those days, when you competed at the U.S. national championships, you
weren’t just competing against the best skaters in the country; you were
competing against the best skaters in the world.

Kwan forced Tara Lipinski to up her
game and vice versa. And the same goes for Kwan and Sasha Cohen. They traded
rankings—domestic and international—for years when they competed. “Since
Michelle and Sasha left, there really hasn’t been a crop of top women,” Kirk
observed. Until the emergence of Gold, Wagner had been alone at the top of U.S.
women’s skating and wasn’t particularly challenged domestically. “I think some
of [the problem] has been that we haven’t had more than one leading lady in the
U.S. You need that group behind you to push you to be better,” she said.

You long-term strategy for success,
however, cannot be built around finding another Kwan. Rather, her retirement –
along with Cohen’s — revealed a thinning bench on the ladies side. And as
ballyhooed as Wagner has been in the last couple of years, she climbed to the
top of a much less steep domestic mountain to call herself U.S.A’s #1 skater,
at least until very recently.

“The standards for winning U.S.
nationals became much easier. If you did a relatively clean program, you were
going to win,” noted Dave Lease, the co-founder of The Skating Lesson.

“As the superstar ladies were
exiting the world stage, [Wagner] was coming in. And there was really no one
[else] who was up to par,” said skating blogger Miki Yamashita in a 2013
episode the Lesson.

So the question is—where did
American depth go? Why has the domestic skating scene become so much less
competitive than it once had been?

Kirk attributes part of the
trouble to the new scoring system. “It’s impossible to gain momentum in this
system,” she said. Kirk mostly
competed under the old, 6.0 system and seems to prefer it to the current way of
evaluating, which entails assigning numeric value to every move on the ice and
then tallying up the points. “In the past, you knew you were able to relax at
certain parts of your performance and perform and have a connection with the
audience. Under this current system, my mind was constantly moving,
thinking—how am I going to get points here? Did I hold that spin long enough?
Did I hold that spiral long enough?” she said.

Think of Nancy Kerrigan’s famed
spiral sequence where she holds her leg behind her and glides around the rink
with her hand outstretched. Crowds loved
it but you don’t see stuff like that anymore. In a recent interview, Frank
Carroll, the legendary U.S. figure skating coach, jokingly asked, “What is a
good spinner? Somebody who puts their blade in their mouth?”

And then there’s the physical
health of the athletes.

“A whole generation was wiped out
by her hip injuries,” Lease observed, referring to the likes of Meissner,
former U.S. national champoin Alissa Czisny and others.

Kirk feels that the International
Judging System (IJS), which was introduced after the cheating
of 2002, is a contributing factor. “These
women are trying all of the contortionist moves and spins. Your body can’t
withstand all of that rigor of movement that we didn’t have when we were
skating under the old system,” she said. And if skaters are more frequently
injured, then they are out of competition before the audience gets a chance to know
their stories, which drives interest in the sport and sells tickets.

“We haven’t had anyone
who has been successful internationally for more than maybe a blip on the
radar. They can’t sustain for even a modicum of what Michelle was able to
achieve,” Kirk noted.

If you go abroad, there are
exceptions to this rule. Skaters like South Korea’s Yuna Kim, the 2010 Olympic
champion, just won the silver in her second Games at the age of 23. But Kim
took nearly two seasons off and chose her competitions carefully, which helped
her preserve her body. Japan’s Mao Asada, Kim’s longtime rival, has also
managed to stick around for more than one cycle, but she isn’t just any old
skater—she is one of the most popular athletes in her country and was intent on
winning Olympic gold in Sochi after failing to defeat her rival in Vancouver.

Back on American soil, the
fortunes—both medal and financial—of U.S. figure skating has tumbled, in part,
because they were inflated for a long time by the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan
scandal. As many have already noted, this saga drove unprecedented interest to
the sport and ramped up TV ratings. Skaters earned huge checks for single
performances and competitions. None of this was sustainable over the long term.

But the scandal and subsequent
attention heaped on figure skating introduced audiences to other stars. Kwan was
the alternate who would’ve skated had criminal charges been filed against
Harding before the Olympics. Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov, Russian
skaters who lived and skated in the U.S. during their professional careers, became
as famous for their fairytale romance as their success on the ice – their fame
became a draw on domestic tours, and, in turn, fed more money into the American
skating system. 1992 Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi, who was quite a gifted
show and professional skater, was able to ride the wave to significant earnings.
And other crowd pleasers such as 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano, Scott
Hamilton (whose own battle with cancer and return to professional ice fueled additional

The money, of course, matters, and
it isn’t just made by retired skaters in the twilights of their career. During
Kwan’s amateur years, she participated in a variety of ice shows, which paid
her very handsomely. She also earned enormous amounts of prize money for
competitions. She had begun amassing wealth even before she competed at the
Olympics. Not winning the gold medal in 1998 and again in 2002 did not seem to
sour her economic prospects.

But it wasn’t just Kwan who did
well. Other, lower ranked skaters were also able to make some money. The ice
shows didn’t just showcase the household names; shows and professional
competitions created financial incentives for some of the lower ranked skaters
to stay in the sport for longer, keeping the domestic field more competitive.

The money might’ve enabled some
skaters to pay for training related costs. Figure skating is an extremely
expensive sport—from the boots, to ice time, private lessons, choreography, and
glittery costumes—so unless your family is independently wealthy, it is hard to
justify staying in a sport once your results start to slide and injuries take
over. Stars on Ice last put on a full tour in 2011.

Phillip Hersh, in
chronicling a financial dispute that took place between 2010 Olympic champion Evan
Lysacek and USFS, noted the dwindling fortunes of American skaters. He wrote,
“The business has changed so much that it would be hard for the
U.S. federation to pay Lysacek anything near what it did Michelle Kwan, Tara
Lipinski, Sarah Hughes, Kimmie Meissner, Sasha Cohen, Timothy Goebel and
Michael Weiss from 1997 through 2005.”

The same
article points out that while there were several skaters making over $100,000
in prize money during those years, no one made over $50,000 in 2010, according
to IRS filings. The reason for the drop in prize money and appearance fees
earned by U.S. skaters? The loss of television contracts.

Also, if you are not bringing in
the winnings you once were it becomes more difficult to compete at the highest
level. You may not be able to afford a program choreographed by Lori Nichol,
one of the best in the business. You might have to go with someone a notch
lower and that, too, can affect your results and earnings.

The lack of financial incentive might’ve have thinned the
domestic field. And a less-than-robust field doesn’t yield the competitiveness
that creates top-notch figure skaters that bring in the audiences and the
money. And so the cycle goes.

But it’s far too
simplistic to look for all of the answers in the American skating scene. Some
of the downturn is due to the changing nature of the international landscape; the
rest of the world has simply gotten better over the last decade. Though Japan
has a history of strong ladies skaters, it has never had so many top notch ones
at the same time. Then there’s Kim, an otherworldly talent who emerged from
South Korea, a country without a strong figure skating tradition. Russia, long
a force in ice dancing and pairs, has more recently been cultivating a bevy of
teenage jumpers and spinners.

But all hope for an American
resurgence is not lost. The Americans placed all three of its skaters in the
top 10 at these Games—no small feat. Also, Kim hasn’t turned South Korea into a
figure skating powerhouse, and she just announced her retirement from amateur
competition. Kim’s longtime rival Mao is also likely to retire after Sochi, as
are a couple of the other dominant Japanese figure skaters. And probably the
same will be true of the 2012 world champion and Sochi bronze medalist Carolina
Kostner, who at 27 is a veteran of three Olympic Games. There will soon be room
at the top for someone like Gold to step into. If she elects to stick around
for the next cycle, she should be able to build some momentum for U.S. figure

And we can already start seeing
some of the missing depth being rebuilt in the young Edmunds. She skated
cleanly, for the most part, at the Olympics and is starting to build her
international reputation. She is a young, talented, ambitious skater. (Or at
least her mother is ambitious if this New
York Times
from 2010 is any indication.) She might be the right skater to push Gold in the
coming years or even become a star in her own right if she develops

Even if all of our best hopes for
Gold are realized, it is unlikely that she’ll be able to return U.S. ladies
figure skating to its dominant past. If she plays her cards right, however, she
might be able to start reversing the trend. Because that last name really is
unbeatable—at least from a marketing standpoint.

Image via Getty.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin