Tenley Albright was the golden girl even before the Winter Olympics were on television. Carol Heiss Jenkins made a movie after she won in Squaw Valley. Peggy Fleming was on the cover of Life magazine. Dorothy Hamill had the hottest hairdo of the 1970s. And Michelle Kwan was mobbed in every hotel lobby she entered.
In decades past, the US women figure skating champion was America’s ice queen, as familiar to the public as a Hollywood star.
“They were iconic,” says Dick Button, the two-time Olympic champion and legendary TV commentator. “They had personality and they had charm and they had pizzazz, and each of them was different.”
If Ashley Wagner, the two-time reigning titleist who will begin defense of her national crown Thursday night at TD Garden, is not nearly as well-known as her Olympic-year predecessors, it may be because the sport’s popularity has been dwindling during the past decade amid a revolving door sequence of new faces and a complicated scoring system adopted in the wake of the Salt Lake City judging scandal that even longtime skating fans find incomprehensible.
“The decline goes back to the current scoring system,” says Ben Wright, the former US Figure Skating Association president and the sport’s most recognized historian. “Public interest continues to decline, as well as the quality of the skating. It isn’t a pretty picture.”
Having a procession of different champions atop the podium hasn’t helped. Since Kwan won her last of eight straight US titles in 2005, there have been six different victors: Sasha Cohen, Kimmie Meissner, Mirai Nagasu, Alissa Czisny, Rachael Flatt, and Wagner, who was the first to repeat since Kwan.
“We need a ladies champion who has proven it over and over and over again,” says Frank Carroll, who coached both Linda Fratianne and Kwan to world titles and Olympic medals.
Kwan, who overall won nine national and five world crowns, was a center-stage fixture for 14 years, from 1993 to 2006, evolving from a ponytailed 12-year-old into a sultry Salome.
“Everybody watched her grow up,” says Carroll.
Longevity once was a hallmark of America’s ice queens. Albright and Fleming won five consecutive national titles, and Heiss Jenkins four.
“When you stayed in, people got used to watching the championships and seeing the same names,” observes Heiss Jenkins, who went on to become an elite coach. “There was continuity.”
More significantly, the US champion usually went on to become world and Olympic titleist as well. Between 1956 and 1976, American ladies won the gold medal at four Games, then claimed three more between 1992 and 2002 with Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinski, and Sarah Hughes.
Four years ago in Vancouver, the United States missed the medal stand for the first time at the Games since 1964, when the squad was rebuilding in the aftermath of the 1961 plane crash that killed the entire team. And there hasn’t been an American on the world podium since 2006, the longest drought since 1937 and a gap that diminishes US fans’ interest.
“That makes a difference,” says Heiss Jenkins, who won five straight world crowns. “When you’re world champion, people are aware.”
Eight times between 1956 and 2002 an American woman went into the Olympics as world champion. Five times she claimed the gold medal.
“They become household names,” says Tina Noyes, an Arlington native who competed in the 1964 and 1968 Games. “People take an interest in them. People follow their lives.”
Yet when American women won gold medals in more recent Games, they didn’t stick around. Lipinski turned professional after her 1998 victory in Nagano, Japan. Hughes competed for one more season, then enrolled at Yale.
“I was on the cover of Time magazine, Sports Illustrated, Wheaties boxes, and Campbell’s Soup cans,” Hughes told the Yale Daily News in October 2012 during a campus visit. “I could have kept doing this but I wanted the space to grow as a person and learn to think for myself.”
Hughes relished being just another freshman from Long Island, walking anonymously down York Street.
“Are you Sarah Hughes?” a Pakistani student once asked her. “Yeah,” she acknowledged.
“Will you tell me what the big deal with you is?” he said.
“I don’t really know,” Hughes shrugged.
When the Winter Games were smaller and the entire US team won fewer medals, the ice queen assumed an oversized aura. In 1968 in Grenoble, France, Fleming claimed the country’s only gold.
“The US counted on her,” recalls Noyes, who placed fourth. “You had Jean-Claude Killy and the Russian hockey team. Who else was there?”
Now that the Games have nearly quadrupled in size, the number of top US women’s contenders has soared.
In 1956, there were only 24 events on the Olympic program and just 132 women competing.
In Vancouver four years ago, there were 86 events and more than 1,000 women.
“You really have to be a standout,” says Heiss Jenkins, who was the only US female to win gold at Squaw Valley, Calif., in 1960. “There has to be some sort of charisma. You’ve got so many women in so many sports, you have to have that ‘It’ factor.”
If there has been no “It” girl in US skating since Kwan, it may be because the sport, with its emphasis on running up the points meter, has de-emphasized style and grace.
“It’s extremely difficult to create personality with all the jumping, jumping, jumping,” says Button, whose new book “Push Dick’s Button” is a “conversation” about skating covering much of the last century. “When you’re falling on your face, how do you look elegant and beautiful in ‘Swan Lake’ with all your feathers when you’re plowing the ice with your nose?”
Nobody did triple jumps when Fleming skated. Hamill was the last Olympic champion to win without one.
While the more recent gold medalists were adept at triples, they were working within a system that also encouraged and rewarded artistry. Kwan’s signature spiral, arms spread, left leg aloft, remains one of skating’s more memorable moves.
“How many times did Michelle skate fantastically and bring everyone to their feet yelling and screaming?” says Carroll. “Somebody who brings the house down, somebody who takes your breath away. Who have we had since Michelle?”
The ice queen now is Korean. Kim Yuna, who won the Vancouver gold, is the reigning world champion and will be the darling going into next month’s Games in Sochi, Russia.
“The reason why we won all those years was because we had the most talent,” says Noyes. “Now the talent is spread all over the world.”