GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Mirai Nagasu said she felt like she already won the Olympics by landing a triple Axel in the team event last week. She thought of Friday’s free skate as “an audition for ‘Dancing with the Stars.’”
An American finishing in the top 10 individually was “a huge accomplishment,” Karen Chen said.
Will U.S. figure skating followers see it the same way?
Bradie Tennell, Nagasu and Chen placed ninth, 10th and 11th in the marquee event of the Winter Olympics.
It’s the first time ever that the U.S. failed to put a single woman in the top six, but the results were in line with the world rankings.
The U.S. drop-off from fourth-place Olympic finishers in 2010 and 2014 has been steady in this four-year cycle, but figure skating, like all Olympic sports, is primarily judged once every four years.
As expected, Russia went one-two on Friday, led by Alina Zagitova, who at 15 became the second-youngest Olympic singles champion of all time (26 days older than Tara Lipinski in 1998).
She was followed by Yevgenia Medvedeva, 1.31 points behind. Medvedeva was the world’s best skater for two straight seasons until her younger training partner Zagitova beat her at the European Championships last month.
Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond’s bronze medal marked perseverance. She won nationals in 2013 one month after turning 17, then broke a leg in 2014 and ranked 24th in the world in 2015. Osmond surged last year for a world silver medal and, at a seasoned 22, held off Japanese teens and 31-year-old Carolina Kostner of Italy for bronze here.
The Americans, all erring on jumps like in Wednesday’s short program, finished more than 38 points behind Osmond.
Tennell, who had not fallen in 33 jumping passes this season coming into the Olympics, crashed on her first attempt in the short program and stepped out of two landings in the middle of her free skate.
She came here as the top U.S. woman internationally this season, good enough to be seeded eighth in the Olympic field. Obviously, U.S. women’s figure skating’s struggles did not start in PyeongChang.
None of the three 2014 Olympians made this team, and Ashley Wagner’s world silver medal in 2016 was followed by her toughest seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18.
Tennell, a soft-spoken 20-year-old in her first full senior international season after back injuries, said she wasn’t sure what the reasonable expectations should have been for these U.S. women.
“I came here to enjoy the experience, soak it all up and put out two good, strong programs,” she said. “Obviously, my programs could have gone a little bit better.”
Tennell was followed in the standings by Nagasu, who came into the singles event as a dark horse for the bronze medal after her star turn in the team event. But she couldn’t land the most difficult element in women’s skating in either individual program, popping the Axel for zero points in the free skate.
While Nagasu has Olympic experience from 2010, she spoke after her free skate of “other commitments” that made these Games difficult, such as not being able to take a warm shower until Friday. She said she “sobbed” after every practice here because she wanted it so badly after missing the 2014 Olympics.
“It’s a lot of pressure every day to hear you’re the top lady, you’re the one who’s going to get a medal, you’re going to land your triple Axel,” said Nagasu, so proud of her team-event bronze that she kept it in her pocket while warming up Friday morning. “I said, Mirai, you did it when it counted. You’ve already done your triple Axel. The rest is just a show. I feel like I’ve won the Olympics. … I thought of this [the women’s free skate] as my audition for ‘Dancing with the Stars.’”
Then there’s Chen, who threw down personal bests at last year’s worlds to finish fourth but has done little else internationally. She complained of boot problems on Instagram before her free skate, where she fell on a triple loop among five jumping passes that received negative grades of execution.
“Finishing top 10 is already a huge accomplishment,” Chen said of the team. “It’s not that we’re not competitive. It’s just the way things are at this moment.”
The way things are: Russia and Japan are now the deepest figure skating nations and have been for several years. The U.S. is fighting with Canada for what’s left.
The reasons have been talked about. A decline in the sport’s popularity from the Tonya-Nancy peak. Coaches not conforming to the new judging system implemented after the 2002 Olympic scandal. The sport’s increased popularity in Japan.
The future in figure skating is judged by what happens at the junior worlds and the junior Grand Prix series. Russia, Japan and South Korea took the top six spots at the 2017 Junior Worlds. Five different Russians combined to win the eight junior Grand Prix events this season. The U.S. earned one bronze medal total from those eight events.
All three U.S. women intend to skate on.
Chen said she came into the Olympics thinking that she might want to give up skating for college but is now determined to make it back for Beijing 2022 at age 22. The Olympic experience changed her mind, even if she didn’t get to skate the team event and didn’t have the individual programs that she wanted.
What must she do to rival the world’s best in four years?
“A lot of it is building my reputation,” she said. “So far I haven’t been able to do that. I’ve been having some great skates, some rough skates. That’s not ideal. I’m working on it.”
Tennell, who was seventh at last season’s junior worlds, said she needs to improve her artistry to match the jumping consistency she showed in winning the U.S. title last month.
“The flow of my skating is a big thing I need to work on,” she said.
What Zagitova did to win gold – putting all of her jumps in the second half of her programs for 10 percent bonuses for each jump – is simply not possible, the U.S.’ most daring jumper said.
“I don’t have the strength to do that,” said Nagasu, a 24-year-old veteran. “I can’t focus on them, though. I’m going to focus on me. I’m going to go home and see my dogs.”