Props to reigning U.S. figure skating champion Ashley Wagner for making one of her goals at this week’s world championships in Nice to earn back the third U.S. women’s berth that slipped away in her previous trip to senior worlds.
"I was part of the team that lost it." Wagner said. "It would be great for me on the team that got the spot back."
But Wagner was no more responsible for the U.S. having just two women's spots this year and the previous three than were circumstances and the other two women on the 2008 U.S. world team.
The 1-2-4 finishers at the 2008 U.S. Championships, Mirai Nagasu, Rachael Flatt and Caroline Zhang, all were below the age minimum (15 years old by July 1 of the previous year) for senior worlds that season.
That left the U.S. to send a team of Wagner, the surprise third place finisher at nationals; Bebe Liang, who was fifth; and a fading Kimmie Meissner, the 2007 U.S. champion and 2006 world champion who staggered to seventh at the 2008 nationals.
Neither Wagner, then a fresh, new face of 16, nor Liang, then 19 and near the end of a solid but unremarkable career, ever had competed at senior worlds before.
So it was no surprise that Wagner was 16th, Liang 10th and Meissner 7th. (The top two finishes must add up to 13 or fewer to earn three places for the next worlds or Olympics.)
When I reminded Wagner in a recent conversation she hadn't been the sole cause of the lost spot, she replied, "I didn't help keep it. "I was hoping that by the time I got back to worlds, we would have the spot back."
So what happened the next three years?
*World meet rookie Flatt finished a strong fifth in 2009, but reigning U.S. champion Alissa Czisny came undone and took 11th.
*Neither Flatt (9th) nor Nagasu (7th) distinguished herself in 2010, each finishing lower than she had at the Olympics a month earlier (Flatt , 7th; Nagasu, 4th) even though the worlds field was missing Olympic bronze medalist Joannie Rochette of Canada. The U.S. performance was more galling because Nagasu had won the short program before tumbling to 11th in the free skate.
*Czisny redeemed herself with a fifth place last year. But Flatt made the ill-advised decision to compete with a leg injury she knew a week earlier was serious, finished a dreadful 12th and earned a reprimand from U.S. Figure Skating for not informing the federation of the problem so they could send a replacement.
The U.S. chances to get back the third spot this year should be good.
The top two finishers from 2011, Miki Ando of Japan and Kim Yuna of South Korea, have not competed this season. Last year’s fourth finisher Alena Leonova of Russia, was only seventh at Europeans and third at her nationals. Elizabeta Tukhtamisheva of Russia, who won two Grand Prix events this season, is below the minimum age for worlds, which is a year older than for the Grand Prix.
On paper, it would seem the big U.S. question mark is Czisny. She was an underwhelming second at January's U.S. Championships and, after two seasons of relative consistency, fell apart at the Challenge Cup two weeks ago in the Netherlands, with zero clean triple jumps and two double axels popped to singles in the long program.
From 1996 through 2008, the U.S. had three women’s spots at worlds. (Team USA didn’t use the the third spot in 1998 after Nicole Bobek withdrew less than a week before the competition began).
From 1966 through 2006, the U.S. also had a women’s medalist at worlds all but three years – 1969, 1993 and 1994.
It’s hardly a coincidence that the recent medal drought (none since 2006) and three-spot drought have overlapped.
Why has this happened beginning in 2007?
Five-time world champion Michelle Kwan, doing promotional work for Royal Caribbean, on a run at a Haitian port last week. Life hasn't been a beach for U.S. women at worlds since she retired. (Royal Caribbean photo)
*Strong competition from Japan, with two skaters (Ando and Mao Asada) who have won four of the past five world titles and two other medals, nearly half the medals (14) won by Japanese women in world meet history.
*The emergence of South Korean superstar Kim, who won a world gold, two silvers and two bronzes, first world medals ever for her country, giving Japan and South Korea 11 of the 15 women’s medals in the last five worlds.
*The end of the Michelle Kwan – Sasha Cohen era, during which (1995-2006) the peerless Kwan had five world titles, 9 world medals and two fourth places, while Cohen had three world medals and two fourth places.
*The failure of the Flatt-Zhang-Nagasu-Wagner generation to live up to its enormous potential. Zhang, Nagasu and Wagner swept the medals at the 2007 junior worlds; Flatt, Zhang and Nagasu did it again in 2008; and Zhang and Wagner were second and third in 2009. But Flatt’s fifth at the 2009 senior worlds is the best any of those four has finished at the next level.
Meanwhile, Kim, Ando and Asada all went from junior world medalists from 2002 through 2006 to senior champions from 2007 through 2011.
*The injuries that progressively turned Meissner from world champion in 2006 (yes, she won after two of the three 2006 Olympic medalists did not go to worlds, but her free skate was exceptional) and fourth in 2007 to a non-factor in 2008 and out of competition forever before her 20th birthday in 2009.
So here we have Wagner at 20, returning to senior worlds for the first time in four seasons. Only twice since 1963 has a U.S. woman finished lower at worlds than Wagner did then (Jennifer Kirk in 2004 and 2005.)
“I’m hoping I can redeem what happened in 2008,” Wagner said.
But she can’t do it alone, no matter how much responsibility she takes.