Sports

JOHN POWERS I ON OLYMPICS

The Olympics showed why the US simply can’t skate with the stars

USA's Bradie Tennell competes in the women's single skating free skating of the figure skating event during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Gangneung Ice Arena in Gangneung on February 23, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINISARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images
Aris MessinisAFP/Getty Images
USA's Bradie Tennell loses her balance during the women’s free skate.

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — So, now what? After its weakest overall Olympic showing in two dozen years and eye-averting performances by its wobbly women, US figure skating has an exceptional amount of catching up to do over the next quadrennium if it expects better results in Beijing in 2022. The Russian women and Japanese men simply are that far ahead.

The two bronze medals that the Americans collected here were their fewest since Nancy Kerrigan’s sole silver in 1994. The men, who were fifth and sixth here, missed the podium for the third time in four Games. The women, who won a couple of medals in both Nagano and Salt Lake City, failed to make it for an unprecedented third straight time.

They not only missed the award stand, they also submitted by far the worst group effort in their history as Bradie Tennell, Mirai Nagasu, and Karen Chen finished ninth, 10th, and 11th behind all three Russians, both Japanese and a South Korean.

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“I am extremely disappointed, I’m not going to lie,” said Chen, who just missed a medal at last year’s world championships. “I’ve trained myself to skate better than that and not to be able to deliver is a huge letdown for myself and everyone who supported me.”

Karen Chen of the US could not hide her disappointment after her free skate. She finished in 11th place.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Karen Chen of the US could not hide her disappointment after her free skate. She finished in 11th place.

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Not only could the Americans literally not stand up under pressure, they couldn’t stand up when the pressure was off, either. After their communal collapse in Wednesday’s short program (where they also placed 9-10-11) the women were so far out of contention that they could have, and probably should have, treated their free skates like an Ice Chips routine.

“I thought of today as my ‘Dancing with the Stars’ audition,” said Nagasu, who began by popping her triple Axel for zero points. “That’s what Adam Rippon told me to do. So I tried to smile as much as I could even though I popped the Axel.” Tennell stumbled out of the back end of her double Axel combination and botched her triple Lutz combo. Chen messed up five jumps, falling on her triple loop.

The Russians, who finished 1-2 for the first time at the Games with Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva, didn’t miss a thing. They rarely do. They’re so far ahead of the Americans now that the US federation may have to borrow a rocket booster from NASA.

The problem isn’t just that the Motherland has been pushing the envelope since before Sochi. It’s that the US began falling behind three decades ago when the federation voted against scrapping compulsory figures, a 19th-century relic that had made the sport expensive and exclusive.

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For eight years after the rest of the world had moved on the Americans still had a separate figures competition for seniors and juniors at the national championships. And when the old 6.0 scoring system was scrapped as part of the post-Skategate reforms, the US was slow to adapt to a format that rewarded risk-taking and rigor.

“For many, many years our younger champions were winning without any of the skills needed to be elite skaters,” said Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches Nagasu. “They didn’t have the triple-triples or the full cadre of triples.”

It’s no coincidence that the US women have earned only one world medal over the past decade and haven’t won a world junior title since 2008 when Rachael Flatt, Caroline Zhang, and Nagasu owned the podium. At the last five world juniors, the Russians and Japanese have won all of the women’s medals.

Mirai Nagasu, 24, was the oldest of the three US women’s figure skaters at the Olympics.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Mirai Nagasu, 24, was the oldest of the three US women’s figure skaters at the Olympics.

The star-spangled pipeline has dried up. The top five skaters at last month’s nationals averaged over 22 years old, including Nagasu (24) and Ashley Wagner (26). The Russian top five averaged 16, including 14-year-old Alena Kostornaia. Medvedeva, their two-time world titlist, already is a relative babushka at 18.

The recent crop of US juniors has a more complete repertoire of triples than did its predecessors. “Which is what it’s going to take in this environment with the Russians and Japanese,” says Zakrajsek. “It’s going to take grooming the talent from the time they’re young so that when they’re doing those skills on the international stage it’s like nothing. They’ve been doing it for years and years and years.”

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What the US can’t, or won’t, replicate is the Russian system that convenes its top skaters and coaches for intensive training in a handful of clubs in Moscow and St. Petersburg or the Japanese approach that brings its promising juniors to national camps.

“It’s a different culture, a different mind-set,” says Zakrajsek. “There are little pockets around the country where that’s trying to be done but ultimately the United States is about the individual rising, not the group working together to make the individual rise . . . When you’re in other cultures it is about doing the best thing for your nation and honoring your legacy and not really about me-me-me.”

The one bright spot at these Games other than the dance bronze from the Shib Sibs (the team medal was a gimme) was the performance of the teenaged men. Nathan Chen, he of the six quads, won the free skate to pull himself up from 17th and Vincent Zhou was right behind him. Chen is 18, Zhou 17. They’ll be back in Beijing with enough firepower and confidence to compete for precious metal.

Chen and Zhou may be the best American men’s duo since Scott Hamilton and Brian Boitano, who came out of an era where anything but gold was a letdown for the US top guns. That was the benchmark set by Dick Button and Tenley Albright in the Fifties. “Why is Nagasu flopping around the ice?” Button wondered on Twitter during her free skate.

Perhaps it just was part of her “Dancing with the Stars” audition.

Nathan Chen, 18, who finished first in the men’s free skate in PyeongChang, gives US figure skating hope for the 2022 Beijing Games.
HOW HWEE YOUNG/EPA-EFE
Nathan Chen, 18, who finished first in the men’s free skate in PyeongChang, gives US figure skating hope for the 2022 Beijing Games.

John Powers can be reached at john.powers@globe.com.