Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Last Stop, Milan: 2018 World Figure Skating Championship Predictions

Perhaps more than ever, I look forward to Worlds right after the Olympics because it creates an opportunity for new stars to shine. Here are my predictions for the action this week in Milan…

(Aside from 2 of the 3 US ladies, I fared pretty badly with my Olympic picks! This time I’ll be less specific on 4th through 10th and see what happens…)

GOLD: Alina Zagitova (RUS)
SILVER: Kaetlyn Osmond (CAN)
BRONZE: Satoko Miyahara (JPN)

4th through 6th, no particular order: Carolina Kostner (ITA), Wakaba Higuchi (JPN), Maria Sostkova (RUS)

Rest of the Top 10, no particular order: Gabby Daleman (CAN), Mirai Nagasu (USA), Bradie Tennell (USA), Choi Da-bin (S. KOR)

(Wow, I barely predicted anything for them Olympics-wise. Let’s change that…)

GOLD: Savchenko/Massot (GER)
SILVER: Tarasova/Morozov (RUS)
BRONZE: James/Cipres (FRA) (pleeeeeaaaase)

4th through 6th, no particular order: Marchei/Hotarek (ITA), Yu/Zhang (CHN), Zabiiako/Enbert (RUS)

Rest of the Top 10, no particular order: Astakhova/Rogonov (RUS), Seguin/Bilodeau (CAN), Moore-Towers/Marinaro (CAN), Della Monica/Guarise (ITA)

(Ooh, did a little better with these Olympic predictions. How about this time…)

GOLD: Shoma Uno (JPN)
SILVER: Nathan Chen (USA)
BRONZE: Jin Boyang (CHN)

4th through 6th, no particular order: Mikhail Kolyada (RUS), Dmitri Aliev (RUS), Vincent Zhou (USA)

Rest of the Top 10, no particular order: Max Aaron (USA), Aleksei Bychenko (ISR), Keiji Tanaka (JPN), Keegan Messing (CAN), Misha Ge (UZB)

(Didn’t do too bad with these Olympic predictions either, though I had Russia’s Bobrova/Soloviev too low. Oopsie. They’re not here anyway…)

GOLD: Papadakis/Cizeron (FRA)
SILVER: Hubbell/Donohue (USA)
BRONZE: Cappellini/Lanotte (ITA)

4th through 6th, no particular order: Weaver/Poje (CAN), Chock/Bates (USA), Stepanova/Bukin (RUS)

Rest of the Top 10, no particular order: Gilles/Poirier (CAN), Guignard/Fabbri (ITA), Hawayek/Baker (USA), Hurtado/Khaliavin (ESP)

OK, that should do it! Follow me on Twitter @ KLBSt8ofSk8 as I follow as much of the action “live” as I can!

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Good, The So-So, and the SERIOUSLY?: Evaluating those "what happened to U.S. Ladies Figure Skating?" Articles

I may have mentioned here before that of my five siblings, three of them have had sports-oriented careers—one was a pro baseball player for 10 years, another is a swim coach who also has a management role with USA Swimming, and still another is a physical education teacher who spends many a weekend working track & field meets all across the country. Their feelings about figure skating are mixed; one seems to appreciate and respect it as a port but probably doesn’t know much about it beyond whatever I’m posting on Twitter, one is essentially an Olympic-year fan who asks me about certain skaters from time to time, and one makes homophobic jokes about it and sends me pics of Johnny Weir in high heels. (Sigh. Two out of three ain’t bad, I guess.)

I bring all this up because one of these sibs (the swim coach) inboxed me on Facebook the night of the ladies’ short program in PyeongChang last month and, shall we say, questioned the quality of those representing the United States. (The exact words were a wee bit harsher, but hey, if he wanted those exact words out there he wouldn’t have messaged me privately.)

We went back and forth a bit—me pointing out Russian hyper-competitive program blah blah this and that, he listing some of the criteria they use at USA Swimming to analyze performance—but as I only semi-jokingly reminded him in the end, the book I wrote is about what’s happened to skating via the American TV screen… not what’s happened to American skating in general.

Of course, my brother and others that helped liven up my inbox during the Winter Olympics were just a miniscule sampling of those asking similar questions and making similar comments last month. Which, inevitably, led to “answers” in the form of articles—some written with value-added input from others, some that came across as little more than disgruntled op-eds.

You probably saw some of them, if not read completely through a few of the pieces. Me, I made it through at least five or six.  But whether you couldn’t bring yourself to push past the depressing headlines, or you’re just dying to compare assessments, read on… I’ve got some skater’s digest versions below!

Writer: Martin Rogers (includes quotes from Chen and Nagasu from the post-event news conference in Korea)

In Short: Our ladies were an embarrassment and their explanations were worse

Rating: 1 Toepick out of four
(I considered giving each article positive or negative GOEs, but I want to keep it simple)

First problem here: the hyperbole. Words and phrases like “collective wreck”, “historically bad”, and “stumbled/faltered/tumbled” (used in describing each young woman’s biggest errors) set the piece up as a prolonged gripefest—though, to be fair, that is exactly what it is. So, um… well done??

Second problem: the shameless passing of judgment. After the inevitable comparison to American OGMs from yesteryear, Rogers alludes to “explanations” and passive/aggressively suggests “we” are owed these explanations as if “we” are the skaters’ coaches and/or parents. (Last time I checked, we are NOT.)

Then, showing clear disdain for said explanations, Rogers mocks Karen Chen’s yearning for her mom’s presence (stacking it alongside a reference to new OGM Alina Zagitova which implies real winners don’t need their mommies by their side no matter how young they are).

Bradie Tennell wasn’t spared either. After being called “robotic” in terms of her skating style (“artistically underdeveloped” could have worked too—just sayin’) and cited for all the ways she wasn’t technically “on” during the ladies’ event, Rogers shares Bradie’s response to the Impossible Question someone apparently posed to her in the post-event presser: How can the U.S. possibly hope to close the gap on Russia?

I say “impossible” not because it can’t be answered (as you'll see in other articles), but because it was posed to a 20 year-old athlete in the thick of it all—Olympic hype, disappointment, discovery, recovery (?). She can’t possibly see the future forest for the trees, not in that moment, anyway. On top of all that, Bradie tends to give the most succinct responses of any skater out there right now. Her actual response—a simple “Anything’s possible”—was really the best she could’ve done under the circumstances. Of course, Rogers called her out on it as “not too positive” nonetheless. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t I guess…

The reality of this year's Olympic situation—that there wasn’t much hope for a medal from any of the Team USA ladies to begin with—isn’t voiced until the ninth paragraph of the article. That’s when the Mirai Nagasu-bashing occurs. And yeah, I agree that some of the things she said and the way she said them post-event (the DWTS reference, the over-claiming of Team Bronze, singling out Gabby Daleman’s poor performance, the ‘in my mind I went for it’ line regarding the triple axel-turned-waltz-jump)… were nonsensical at best, poorly chosen at worst. But to say “she’ll be remembered more for what she said afterward” than for landing the first triple axel in U.S. female Olympic history—that’s the talk of people who care little about the sport itself even in Olympic years, if you ask me.

(It’s also the talk of perennial parade-rainers Phil Hersh and Christine Brennan, who seem to care a great deal about the sport but nonetheless are prone to giving its athletes the verbal beat-downs of an over expectant parent… but I digress. Brennan actually gave one of the more metered assessments of things in PyeongChang, as you’ll see later.)

All in all, RogersUSA Today article carried the gravitas of a random guy at TGI Friday’s making a bet with the bartender on Ivett Toth’s podium chances because her unitard caught his attention. “You’d like to see some steel,” Rogers sneered in his article, in response to Karen’s so-called excuses. 
I’d like to see some substance in this little more than mean-spirited assemblage of words.

Writer: Bryan Armen Graham 

In Short: Our ladies aren’t great any more, and we might as well get used to it

Rating: Two Toepicks

According to this piece from The Guardian, failure is the new normal in light of no U.S. women making the “individual” podium. First problem I have with this is that age-old argument of success vs. failure… it wasn’t even “failing to make the podium is the new normal”; just out-and-out FAILURE. Give me a break.

Or rather, give them a break—if the results of Mirai, Bradie and Karen are proof of anything, it’s that none of them really should have been expected to medal. Back at the 2006 Games, Johnny Weir was in 2nd after the short program—SECOND!—only to falter badly in the free skate and drop all the way to 5th. And (as previously mentioned) at these Games, reigning World Bronze Medalist Daleman was still “within striking distance” of Olympic Bronze, as they say, when she started the Free Skate night in 7th place… but had difficulty with just about every jumping pass in her “Rhapsody in Blue” program, taking her all the way down to 15th by night’s end. 

Not trying to sound snarky here, but THOSE two examples are much closer to what I’d call failures than what our team of women delivered that night. Mirai was 10th at her last Worlds appearance, Bradie has not yet been to a senior Worlds, and while Karen Chen was fourth last year, I don’t think anyone seriously anticipated her finishing at the Games in the Top 5, let alone on the podium. (Gotta remember that Chen benefited greatly last year from not only Anna Pogorilaya’s crash-and-burn free skate, but Wakaba Higuchi’s egregious SP error that ultimately cost the Japan team an Olympic berth.)

As for the “so what happened?” part of Graham’s article, the explanations (“a constellation of factors”) are as wide-ranging as they are brief—and are attributed to no one other than Graham himself. It’s not that he’s off the mark necessarily; it’s that he seems to use them simply to underscore the idea that our Olympic wanna-bes are hosed for the foreseeable future. While not nearly as vindictive-sounding as the Martin Rogers USA Today piece, it still paints a pretty grim picture.
Writer: Dvora Myers (w/quotes from Tom Zakrajsek and Jackie Wong, among others)

In Short: Here are some well-informed theories about the state of U.S. ladies figure skating at the Olympics

Rating: three and a half toepicks

Of course the proof this is a better article is better is in its title—it’s about “failing to medal”, not out and out failure. Writer Dvora Myers clearly appreciates the difference.

And she doesn’t shy away from the facts about the medal drought, nor does she bury the 9-10-11 placement. But then she gets right to it: the what’s going on? question, followed by an IJS-rooted premise explained by Zakrajsek, Wong, and USFS high performance director Justin Dillon.

As for the premise itself—definitely worth a read, if you’re not familiar with it already. In short, I believe this premise is what Johnny and Tara offered when faced with the same question during the Games except a) it’s not delivered at breakneck speed in between skating performances (or worse yet, between skating elements)… and b) it’s straight-from-the-source (with the details and examples deserved), rather than seeming speculation.

My only wincing moment in the article came in the final two graphs, where USFS spokesperson Barbara Reichert claims “they weren’t concerned” about the U.S. men when others were years ago (years ago? I’m still concerned about them now!) and speaks with a confidence about the 2022 U.S. ladies that seems more than a little premature… like she’s trying too hard to pin a big bow onto a poorly wrapped package and call it all beautiful. Not that that’s surprising—PR spin is PR spin, no matter what brand you’re dealing with. I just think the article would’ve been better without it.