Over three days in late January, Alysa Liu turned into a sensation whose fame briefly reached beyond her sport.
Liu went from becoming, at age 13, the youngest senior national champion in U.S. figure skating history to appearances on TODAY and the Late Show with Jimmy Fallon, charming both viewers and the hosts.
And then, because of her age, Liu disappeared from not only the wider stage provided by those shows but also from figure skating’s stage until next season.
The situation is similar for the three young women, Anna Shcherbakova, Alexandra Trusova and Alena Kostornaia, then 14, 14 and 15, respectively, who swept the senior podium at the Russian Championships in December.
And for Stephen Gogolev, 14, senior silver medalist at the Canadian national championships in January.
At least the three Russians and Gogolev made the minimum age cutoff for this week’s World Junior Championships in Zagreb, Croatia, although Kostornaia withdrew for unspecified medical reasons. Liu is too young even for junior worlds.
But none of those five are old enough to compete in the senior world championships later this month in Japan.
That means the premier figure skating event of this season will be missing five of the best and most compelling skaters – at least as determined by national championship results – from three of the world’s traditionally powerful skating countries.
That’s enough to leave even dedicated figure skating fans scratching their heads. And it cannot help gain fans in the United States, where interest in the sport is flagging, among the people who might stumble upon NBC’s coverage of senior worlds and wonder what happened to that Liu kid.
That raises the issue of whether national federations should have the same age eligibility rules as those the International Skating Union applies to international events. Since 2001, an athlete must be 15 by the July 1 before a season begins to compete as a senior in international championships and 13 by that date for junior events.
That question has taken on new significance because of the current iteration of the sport’s judging and scoring system (IJS), first used at Worlds (with different parameters) in 2005.
The system now has made it possible for advanced 13- and 14-year-olds, whose often pre-pubescent morphology makes it easier to do the most difficult jumps, to get enough technical points to overcome their lack of mature skating skills and presentation.
In the past, phenoms like Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan could go from winning senior national titles and medals to compete as seniors internationally before their 15th birthday. Whether that was a good or bad idea is open to a debate that the sport’s current realities has revived.
“I fully understand the concern about the confusion that the various age limit rules may create, and I fully agree that it would be much wiser to have the same rules nationally and internationally,” Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, chair of the ISU’s single & pair skating committee, said in an email. “I find (it) nonsense to allow 11-year-old girls to compete in senior events and national championships.
“Unfortunately, the ISU cannot interfere in national regulations, but I definitely would support the idea of discussing the matter with the various federations concerned and try to convince them of the importance of having their champions to represent them in senior ISU Championships.”
That discussion likely won’t get far, given the feelings of national federations like Russia, Canada and the United States.
“While the ISU has rules based on age, U.S. Figure Skating does not – and will not – impede the advancement of an athlete in domestic competitions based on age,” USFS president Anne Cammett said in an email.
“U.S. Figure Skating’s position on performance continues to be based on proficiency and achievement as opposed to age categories… We will continue to follow what the organization believes is in the best interests of our skaters in their pursuit of excellence.”
Through a spokesperson, Skate Canada chief executive Debra Armstrong said her federation is satisfied with the system that allows athletes to compete in senior national events before they are eligible for such events internationally.
Alexander Lakernik of Russia, the ISU’s top figure skating official, said via email, “It is not so evident that federations who allow their young skaters to compete in seniors are wrong.”
Lakernik, like Bianchetti, noted the ISU has no authority to interfere in the rules of national federations.
Lakernik contested the idea that very young skaters could not win in seniors under IJS until recently, noting that Adelina Sotnikova had won the Russian Championship at age 12 and gone on five seasons later to become 2014 Olympic champion. But when Sotnikova won her country’s 2009 senior nationals, Russian women’s singles skating was struggling toward at its lowest ebb since the early 1980s.
Another eminent Russian, venerable coach Alexei Mishin, said in a text message he “completely agreed” with the idea national federations should use the same age rules as the international federation.
As part of its selection process for the World Junior Championships, the Japanese Skating Federation allows the top six finishers from its junior nationals to compete in the senior event about a month later. In an email, the JSF said its records show no junior ever has won its senior national title.
Japan’s Mao Asada, an eventual three-time world senior champion and 2010 Olympic silver medalist, won the 2005 national silver medal at 14. Asada could not compete at senior worlds that year or the Olympics in 2006, when she would have been a gold medal contender.
“Some people have the opinion that you want the best at competition,” said Canadian coach Brian Orser. “Others think if they are going to compete as seniors, they probably should be that age at nationals. I have no opinion either way.”
In sports like gymnastics and Alpine skiing, the U.S. federations use the same age rules for senior events as its international federation. In gymnastics, it is 16 in the calendar year of a competition for women and 18 for men. In skiing, it is 16 during the calendar year, so Mikaela Shiffrin, now the sport’s leading woman at 23, was able to do her first World Cup race two days before her 16th birthday.
Track and field follows different national and international rules.
USA Track & Field has no minimum age for men in senior (or “open”) track and field championships and a minimum of 14 for women. At this year’s world championships, minimums vary by event, with the endurance events requiring an older minimum, and all athletes must have been born before 2004.
In addition to facing questions about harmonizing national and international age minimums, figure skating officials have been talking about raising the international minimums. Although a so-called “urgent” proposal to raise it to 17 for seniors did not make it to floor discussion at last summer’s biennial ISU Congress, the issue is expected to come up again in 2020.
Laura Lipetsky, who coaches Liu, has repeatedly said she and her skater are not frustrated by having her held back internationally by her birth date because they were aware of the rules in place.
But Lipetsky unsurprisingly is opposed to the age restrictions.
“Minimum age requirements shouldn’t be a factor in sending a qualified skater to either nationals or worlds. A skater should be judged strictly on her talents,” Lipetsky said in a text message.
“Many have made the argument that a minimum age should be established in order to make sure that we have mature skaters on a world stage. Unfortunately, in ice skating a person’s age does not establish their maturity level. Many girls mature at different ages.
“A 12-year-old skater can have mastered all the triple jumps for a high technical score but lack the maturity to score high in the artistry marks. In this scenario, she will probably not score high overall marks. You can take another skater who is 12 but mature for her age, (who) has all of the triple jumps and the maturity level to score high in artistry. A skater’s maturity level should not judged by an age, but by their performance.”
Coincidentally, while Liu won’t be competing at junior or senior worlds this month, she will have another turn in the spotlight for a non-sports audience this Friday, when VH1 airs its annual Trailblazer Honors.
Liu is being recognized as an “Everyday Trailblazer” in this year’s awards, which are centered on breakthroughs in female empowerment. Other honorees include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, filmmaker Ava DuVernay, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and “The Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Burke.
Pretty heady company for a 13-year-old, even if you could bet she would rather be with kids around her own age when they skate the short program Friday at junior worlds.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating
As a reminder, you can watch the world championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.
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