Time was, as in most of the time until recently, that the US figure skating champion stood on top of the world. Between 1948 and 2010, American men and women won 49 individual global titles plus 14 Olympic gold medals, by far the most of any nation. This quadrennium, though, has been uncommonly barren for the Yanks, who next month figure to miss both the men’s and women’s podiums at the Games for the first time since 1936, when Sonja Henie was everyone’s darling.
Not that the Stars and Stripes will remain folded in a drawer in Sochi. Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the reigning world dance champions, are favored to make history as the first US gold medalists at Olympus, and their colleagues should win a medal in the inaugural team event. But the country that once produced Buttons and Albrights and Jenkinses and Boitanos and Yamaguchis and Kwans on a gilded assembly line hasn’t been turning out super soloists.
The American women, who’ve slipped behind the Asians and Russians, haven’t won a world medal since 2006, their longest drought since 1937. And the US males haven’t made the podium since Evan Lysacek won Olympic gold in Vancouver. “I think the Americans have a lot of really good men,” says Mark Mitchell, the Skating Club of Boston coach whose pupil Ross Miner is a top contender to make the Sochi squad at this week’s US championships at TD Garden. “We have no outstanding man.”
When Mitchell was competing the Americans had a teamful. Besides Boitano, who won the gold medal in Calgary, the 1988 squad included Paul Wylie, who won silver in 1992, and Christopher Bowman, who collected two world medals. Todd Eldredge, who didn’t make the team, went on to compete in three Games and claim the global title.
“Back then we did have guys who could do the technical elements that were competitive in the world, plus they had everything else to go along with it — good skating, good spins, good charisma,” says Mitchell. “But the whole world has changed.”
The complicated scoring system adopted in the wake of the Salt Lake judging scandal places decidedly less emphasis on the polished package skating, where the Americans excelled, and more on piling up points. “It’s become a game of bean-counting,” says Frank Carroll, who coached Linda Fratianne, Michelle Kwan, Tim Goebel, and Lysacek to Olympic medals.
If the American pile is comparatively smaller it may be because their technical chops are less evolved than those of their rivals. Their men don’t land quadruple jumps as well, nor do the women hit the triple-triple combinations as reliably. “Yu Na Kim, Mao Asada, Carolina Kostner — all these girls can do triple-triples in their sleep and they have the skating skills and the spins and the rest of the technical jumps,” says Ashley Wagner, who has won back-to-back domestic crowns but not yet a world medal. “So I have to have that as well if I want to be able to call myself competitive against them. And when I say competitive, I mean I want to win.”
Coincidentally or not, the Americans’ diminished domination of the sport has been accompanied by diminished interest from their countrymen. Much has to do with the brain-baffling scoring system that is advanced calculus when compared to the old 6.0, and that confuses the untutored spectator. But the absence of familiar faces on the medal stand hasn’t helped. The connection between skating’s popularity in Japan and the growing number of its men and women on the medal stand is not random.
“Skating has a level of popularity there that rivals the big four sports in the US,” says Miner, who is better known in Japan than he is in the States. “If I had to guess, I’d say that baseball, sumo, and figure skating are highest up. Skaters are rock stars and they train really hard to keep that lifestyle.”
Lysacek, whose Olympic title defense was thwarted by a hip injury, is the only recent American skater with rock-star appeal. “Even when he was struggling he was still marvelous,” says Carroll. “He was a man who could dance on ice.”
Lysacek began his senior career under the old scoring system, which was notable for the longevity of domestic champions, propped up or otherwise. The current system has made for a revolving door of victors. There have been three men in three years, with Miner the only man to make the podium throughout. There have been seven women’s champions in nine years with Wagner the first to repeat since Kwan in 2005. And there have been five pairs champions in five years, with six different sets of faces on the last two podiums.
Since US pairs last as long as Vegas marriages in a country with a throwaway culture, it’s no surprise that none of them has made a world podium since 2002 or won an Olympic medal since 1988. “We’ve certainly had teams that were stepping in that direction and right as they get there they decide to go in opposite directions,” says Bobby Martin, who coaches reigning champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir at the Skating Club of Boston. “Go back four years and see who was in pairs at that time and if they had just remained together where would they be right now? But instead they’re all with different partners.”
The dancers are all about longevity. Davis and White, who’ll be going after a record sixth straight US title, have been together since 1997. They followed Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto, who’d won five straight crowns, who’d followed Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev, who’d also won five in a row. Davis and White train in Michigan alongside Canadian rivals Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the Olympic champions, as well as siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani, who’ve shared the domestic podium with them for three years. “Every day our practices with Meryl and Charlie and Tessa and Scott are like a warm-up at the world championships,” says Alex.
The Americans, who went three decades between Olympic dance medals, now are positioned to win their third in a row. So spins the wheel in a slippery sport. The Russian men, who won four straight golds between 1994 and 2006, only will have one competitor in Sochi. It’s their women, a quartet of skywalking teenagers, who are on the rise.
“Ten years ago I watched Japanese nationals and said, ‘Holy cow, these girls are good,’ and then in a year or two they burst on the scene,” says Mitchell. “Now I see that with the Russian girls, one right after the next. On the junior circuit you don’t even know who they are and all of a sudden . . . boom . . . another Russian girl. It comes and goes in cycles.”
The Americans, who once were on a permanent up cycle, have been down recently, but the arrow is pointing upward. Their men swept last year’s world junior championships with Joshua Farris, Jason Brown, and Shotaro Omori and the women regained a third Olympic spot when Wagner and Gracie Gold finished fifth and sixth at the world championships. For Sochi, though, the golden hopes ride with the hoofers. The “My Fair Lady” theme for Davis and White’s short dance is apt: Just get them to the rink on time.