Thursday, February 3, 2011
The American Outlook
With the first National Championships of the new Olympic cycle in the books, it is time to start looking at the direction the USFSA is going. Gone are Lysacek, Weir and Belgosto. The perennial stars have moved on to successful professional careers, and while they may flirt with the idea of coming back, it is most unlikely. Times have changed under the IJS. The US no longer has ready-made champions who are waiting in the wings for the champion ahead of them to retire so they can begin a new four-year reign. The days of a Fleming-Lynn-Hamill-Fratianne-Sumners-Thomas-Yamaguchi-Kerrigan-Kwan lineage are long gone.
While the US will not likely be contending for bags of medals at the upcoming World Championships, it will not be a total drought. What is important is that plenty of potential stars are pushing one another and opening the possibility of potential stars by 2014.
Ice Dance is the leading discipline of the USFSA at this point. Marlie are primed for another Four Continents title and look ready to win America's first world title in ice dance. This season has been challenging and far from a cake walk, but they have stretched their performance ability in the process. While their programs may not be iconic, Marlie will likely be better skaters in the long run for having pushed through this season. Without Belgosto, Voir and DomShabs, they've had to push themselves. Not only are they dealing with the Post Olympic Depression, they are having to face a season where they need to challenge themselves to maintain their distance over the rest of the field without having a rival for motivation. While victory will be less assured when Voir return to full strength, it will likely be easier to find the will to train everyday. Having different programs to work on will also help. As far as the gold medal at worlds is concerned, they are the most prepared team to win at this point. Competing all season and making adjustments will help them. It is unlikely that Voir will have the necessary preparation to really challenge them. It would not be a shock if they ultimately realize they won't win and decide to protect their reputation until they are ready to win in the fall.
The Shibutanis and Chock and Zuerlein were neck-and-neck in terms of scores on the Grand Prix circuit, but that was far from the case at Nationals. Alex and Maia stepped up and the media is beginning to realize why everyone in skating is such an Alex Shibutani fan. In terms of a competitive performance, Maia and Alex rose the bar at Nationals and far exceeded expectations. It appears that if they stay healthy, they should find themselves in the top five (and likely the top three) by 2014. Sibling duos face unique challenges in terms of finding effective performance vehicles, but the precision of their technique is unmatched.
Chock and Zuerlein took a giant leap forward this season with their programs. Having Samuelson and Bates back in the mix will likely push them to achieve even greater heights next season. They will need to continue improving at this rate in order to maintain a spot on the World Team and make up ground internationally. The competitiveness in Canton will help the US in the future. Having Lynn and Logan and the Hubbells stick around will also aid in maintaining depth.
In terms of pairs, not much has changed. The depth of the field is slightly better than it was last season, but the US is far from reaching levels of excellence. If Yankowskas and Coughlin can keep from being a one-year-wonder, things will improve. Denney and Barrett, as fugly as they may sometimes be, are fighters and will likely come back from missing Worlds. Marley and Brubaker are promising, but have tons of work to do. It will be interesting to see where they are after a full summer training together. Evora and Ladwig are improving and pushing the other top teams, but it is unlikely that they will ever make a big impact internationally. With the Russians having their pairs mojo back, the US is unlikely to medal at Worlds during the next four years, but the results have the potential to at least return to the level of respectability.
The American ladies were the big disappointment of the last four years, but things are starting to turn around. There is not enough that can be said about Alissa Czisny's success this season. In order to be competitive internationally, the judges need to view you as a potential medalist and champion. With another strong showing at Four Continents, Alissa Czisny will be primed for a top five finish at Worlds and will likely be in strong contention for a bronze medal.
The decision to send Czisny, Flatt and Nagasu to Four Continents is probably the right one. Flatt and Czisny will benefit from not having too much down time before Worlds. Czisny is on fire and is believing in herself more and more with each consistent performance. In the words of the great Michelle Kwan,she "is making that broken record a positive one." Rachael Flatt is questioning her drive to continue, but the additional competition will help her maintain her competitive edge. If Czisny and Flatt perform as they did at Nationals, it is likely that the US will earn a third spot for next season. Without significant improvement in her world ranking, it looks doubtful that Flatt will continue competing much longer.
Mirai Nagasu is receiving the kick in the ass that many feel she needs to either 'put up or shut up.' Many former skaters even felt that the USFSA should consider sending Agnes Zawadzki or Christina Gao to Four Continents or Worlds to earn experience. As it is, having them just miss will likely motivate them to strive even harder for next season. Both have areas of improvement and will likely have good showings at Junior Worlds. With Adelina Sotnikova hot hot hot, Junior Worlds will be a hotly-contested event. Earning a medal will be a true accomplishment, not a foregone conclusion as when Flatt, Nagasu, Zhang and Wagner were on the Junior International scene.
Courtney Hicks is ready for a top 10 finish at Junior Worlds, but she needs more seasoning before she is ready for the senior scene. A few Junior Grand Prix assignments could really test her. Courtney Hicks has been consistent this season, but much can change and be revealed during the jump to the senior ranks.
Ashley Wagner is still on the fringe, but her career is at a crossroads. Ashley can either move on or make a significant jump. It appears that the USFSA is ready to move on to someone else unless she performs like she never has. The triple-triples need to become consistent and the two foot landings need to be eradicated. Ashley is currently at risk for developing into another Tonia Kwiatkowski, where they stick around without significant improvement and occasionally luck out by having a consistent showing when others falter.
Yasmin Siraj and Lauren Dinh would be good candidates for the Gardena Spring Trophy and JGP assignments. They are two skaters to keep tabs on. Mary Beth Marley, Katarina Kulgeyko, Angela Wang, Nina Jiang, Kiri Baga and Leah Keiser are hanging around the periphery. There is hope that one or two of them may emerge as a decent contender over the coming years.
The American men are experiencing the most growing pains. Nationals demonstrated great depth, but inconsistent efforts by the leading men led to a clusterfuck of a situation where two emerging skaters are on the world team, with a veteran who experienced a Rudy Galindo-moment, yet has no chance of ever being competitive internationally. Abbott, Rippon and Mahbanoozadeh will likely perform well at Four Continents. It is important that they all perform well and show the federation that they are not to be ignored after finishing out of the top three. Each has something to prove. One can only hope that they will perform well enough to cause the federation to question their selection procedures. In many ways, USA Gymnastics has Martha Karolyi in order to prevent a situation like this from occurring.
It remains a conundrum that the skaters most capable of earning three spots at not being sent to Worlds, while inexperienced skaters are being boosted, only to make things more difficult down the road. Abbott and Rippon may be question marks at times, but they have proven themselves able to handle the task of putting the US in the best possible situation to retain three spots. The federation appears open to new blood at the top, yet things will get murky once the third spot is lost. Unfortunately, the third spot is difficult to regain once it is lost. The advantage to having three skaters attempt to earn three spots is that, under the current system, one can afford to have a poor competition and not screw the number of spots. It is difficult for two skaters to perform well enough to average a 6th-7th finish, especially in the absence of a true medal contender. Abbott and Rippon at least had the potential to earn that spot.
The USFSA made the decision to push Bradley to the top of the podium at Nationals because they felt 'skating needed him,' yet it is that very decision that will likely screw them in the future. They've now pushed established stars out of the picture too early and potentially damaged their international reputations. It is unlikely that both Rippon and Abbott will restore their positive career trajectory by being kept out of worlds. In all likelihood, one will come back fighting and one will crumble for good. If one does have an outstanding showing at Four Continents, it would behoove the USFSA to offer Bradley and IMG a lump sum, get him on the tour and out of the way for the World Championships.
Phil Hersh and others are saying that the likelihood is that only Marlie will medal at Worlds. That is certainly the only quasi-guarantee, but Czisny does have the potential. Unfortunately, the USFSA no longer has the potential for a men's medal. Rippon and Abbott both had the potential to medal if they skated well and others did not. That is no longer the case with the current team.
As for medals at Four Continents, the US will likely see an additional bronze medal from the Shibutanis in ice dance. That adorable duo is facing the music and winning.