In 2002, five-time world figure skating champion Michelle Kwan competed at her final Olympic Games, in Salt Lake City. A bronze medal hung around her neck, representing the American team she had helped carry for years. Four years earlier, in Nagano, the nine-time national champion had finished a disappointing second. Outside of the Olympics, Kwan would win world and international gold medals for herself and her country, and would leave her sport as one of the most decorated skaters of all time. But she would never be an Olympic champion. More than a decade’s worth of competition was summed up in two single medals, a silver and a bronze, earned four years apart.
Figure skating can be particularly cruel. Historically the sport is an individual effort whereby skaters are judged not only for their routines’ technical elements, but also for the type of individual they appear to be on (and sometimes off) the ice. There is no team to fall back on should a superstar have an off-day or suffer a badly timed injury. One shot, one chance for one medal, and then it’s over.
Many Olympic sports offer multiple opportunities for medals. Alpine skiing has up to five events in which to compete. Figure skating’s Summer Olympics cousin, gymnastics, offers women six and men eight chances for medals, including the coveted team events. But figure skaters have only been able to leave an Olympic Games with a single medal to show for their efforts—and that’s if they happen to claw their way onto a very crowded podium. There is no second chance for a skater to be a champion if she falters as an individual during an Olympic competition. Until now.
For the first time in figure skating’s history, there will be a team event at the Olympic Games in Sochi. While there is some confusion around how it will work, the basic rules are as follows:
- Ten countries will enter skaters across each skating event: men and women’s singles, pairs, and ice dancing.
- Each skater will perform two routines, the short and the free skate, and countries can substitute skaters should they want to enter different athletes for each program.
- First place receives ten points, second place nine, and so on.
- After the short program, the field will be narrowed down to the final five countries, whose skaters will compete for the medals in the free skate. The highest combined score from both programs wins.
For the most part, competing nations have been tight-lipped about which skaters would compete for their teams. A few days before the start of the Games, when world champion ice dancer Charlie White was asked who he thought might be representing Team USA in the new event, he responded, “Right now I don’t think we’re supposed to talk about too much strategy.” During the naming of the Olympic roster, United States Figure Skating president Patricia St. Peter said that the team competition did not influence their selection of athletes, perhaps suggesting that the team competition wasn’t the top priority in Sochi. But while the team competition is still new territory for Olympic skaters, it’s the most important innovation in the sport in decades and stands to change figure skating altogether—for the better.
Creating Strong Individuals Through Team
At the National Championships in January, U.S. Figure Skating selection procedures came under fire when fourth place finisher Ashley Wagner was selected over bronze medalist Mirai Nagasu for the third and final spot on the U.S. Olympic team. (National champion Gracie Gold and silver medalist Polina Edmunds were virtual locks to make the team.) The decision to select Wagner over Nagasu had everything to do with Wagner’s track record of success: She is the most experienced and decorated figure skater of the women who finished in the top four at Nationals. She also secured that coveted third Olympic spot with her fifth-place finish at the 2013 World Championships. (The U.S. program, which has struggled at international competitions, disappointingly qualified only two skaters for the Vancouver Winter Games in 2010.) At the event’s conclusion, Wagner said “mission accomplished” on finishing high enough to earn three Olympic spots for the U.S. In the end, ironically, it would be the spot she earned for herself.
Wagner, 22, has long been a team player within the United States Figure Skating program; now she is competing at a time that allows her to be a part of one, and be rewarded for it. She helped the U.S. win the World Team Trophy in 2013 and has been the face of U.S. figure skating over the last four years. Often, she has struggled to come through for herself in major competitions, but she has always delivered for the team. She’ll get the chance to do just that in Sochi, as on Wednesday she was named to skate the short program for the women in the Saturday night team event.
As countries become more accustomed to the team competition, their athlete selection strategies will likely evolve. A skater like Ashley Wagner making an Olympic team despite her fourth place finish at Nationals could become more commonplace. National pride will be at stake for the governing bodies of the big figure skating nations: Canada, Japan, Russia, and the United States. But the pressure to win individual medals, while still great, will be shared by that for the team medal. There is now more than one opportunity to become a champion, and to get there, individual competitors will need their team, and their team will need them. In the process, it will build the type of collaborative but competitive environment missing in figure skating—the type of team building that has led to the development of top individual competitors in other sports, like gymnastics.
Revitalizing a Nation That’s Losing Its Luster
Figure skating in the U.S. has suffered in recent years. Its popularity began sinking after the removal of the 6.0 scoring system in 2004 in favor of a more complicated system that most fans struggle to understand. No American woman has been an Olympic or world medalist since 2006, the year Kimmie Meissner took the world title. On the men’s side, Evan Lysacek won gold at the 2010 Olympics, and it’s been zero world medals since. Pairs and ice dancing have fared better, but those disciplines still lag behind their more popular counterparts. The lack of a superstar in the sport has not only hurt its popularity, it’s also stunted its pool of talent. U.S. Figure Skating needs a win to get young people excited about signing up for skating classes to follow their own eventual Olympic dreams.
In a deeply competitive field of individual athletes, the team competition could be the U.S.’s best chance to bring glory back to the ice rink. They are among the favorites, along with Canada and Russia, to challenge for the gold. A 2014 team gold may not symbolize redemption for any individual American skater, but it could very well be what U.S. Figure Skating so desperately needs to prove to the world that it’s back on track.
More Medals, More Second Chances
The opportunity for athletes to win another Olympic medal best sums up why the team event is the greatest innovation in figure skating in decades—maybe even bigger than that elusive quad jump performed by the male skaters. But this isn’t the adult version of awarding every child on the soccer team a trophy. Rather, it stems from understanding that making an Olympic figure skating team is statistically harder than being drafted into the NBA or NFL, and the experience lasts for a mere few days. And then it’s over.
The team competition delivers a chance for an athlete who has worked her entire life for that Olympic moment to not just walk away with a single medal at best, but to earn and compete more. It gives skaters more opportunities to show on the Olympic stage what they’ve been working for their entire careers.
It also means that it’s not over when it used to be over.
Two years ago, Olympic gymnast Jordyn Wieber walked into the arena in London as the defending world all-around champion and the two-time national champion of the United States. In the qualifying round, she made only a few small errors on the four apparatus (vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor exercise), but two teammates finished above her. With only two athletes allowed into the all-around competition, Wieber—who by all accounts most deserved the title—lost her chance to move on to the all-around final and compete for the gold. But her Olympic story didn’t end there.
Gymnastics used to be considered a heavily individual sport, much like figure skating, but in recent years the team competition has arguably become the most coveted medal. Wieber was selected to compete for three events in the team competition. This time there were no errors, and Jordyn Wieber, along with her four teammates, became an Olympic champion. “To have this gold medal around my neck,” she said after the medal ceremony, “is an indescribable feeling.”
The team competition in Olympic figure skating deserves to be taken seriously by the skaters, the competing nations, the fans, and the media. It allows one more medal to be won for a nation—and one more chance to give these athletes that “indescribable feeling” of being an Olympic champion.