Four years ago, the U.S. figure skating team had its worst results ever at the Winter Olympics.
The 2022 team named after the U.S. Championships ended Sunday could do better than 2018 – although it may not be a substantial improvement, and the assessment of it will depend largely on Nathan Chen’s performance in men’s singles.
For purposes of long-term comparison, the team event isn’t a factor. It has been on the Olympic program only the past two Winter Games, and no more than three of the 10 qualified nations have been (and will be) strong medal contenders, with Team USA among them.
So here are the numbers from the four traditional disciplines in 2018:
*One medal, a bronze in ice dance. In the 12 Winter Games beginning when ice dance became a medal event in 1976 (and not counting the team event), the U.S. never had earned as little as a single bronze and earned a single medal only twice (1994, women’s silver; 2014, ice dance gold).
*In women’s singles, both the highest place (ninth) and the aggregate (9-10-11) from 2018 were the worst in the 17 Olympics where the U.S. has had three finishers. The United States now has gone three Olympics without a women’s medal, its longest drought ever.
*In men’s singles, the U.S. had no medal for the second straight time. Not since before World War II have U.S. men come up empty in three straight Winter Games.
*In pairs, where the U.S. qualified just one entry, its finish (15th) was lowest by the top couple in U.S. history – by five places.
Some of the U.S. results decline owes to the overwhelming recent dominance of Russia in women’s singles. Some owes to Japan’s becoming a consistent power in women’s and men’s singles over the past 12 years. General interest in the sport in those two countries has risen commensurately while dropping in the United States.
And the hopes for 2022? Realistically, a medal in men’s singles and in the team event and a chance for one in ice dance.
Caveat: the Covid pandemic, especially the Omicron variant, makes predictions harder than they always are for a sport held on a slippery surface.
Much can happen before skating is to begin in 23 days. Some athletes might miss the Games entirely because of a positive Covid test. Some might be forced out by a positive test in the middle of their two-phase event. Both situations arose at the U.S. Championships.
And some athletes may get to Beijing with diminished fitness if either having tested positive with asymptomatic Covid or having to deal with symptoms causes them to miss training time.
Taking all that into consideration, here is a look at U.S. prospects for Beijing in all five events:
Most expect this to be a battle between Chen and Japan’s redoubtable Yuzuru Hanyu, one of the few global superstars in figure skating history, with Hanyu’s countrymen, Shoma Uno and Yuma Kagiyama, vying for the bronze.
Chen’s flop in the 2018 Olympic short program cleared the way for Hanyu to become the first men’s repeat champion since 1952. But Chen, fifth overall, won the free skate easily four years ago, and he has beaten Hanyu by 22 points or more in their only three meetings at individual events since – the 2019 and 2021 World Championships and 2019 Grand Prix Final.
Hanyu missed much of this season with injury, just as he had leading to the 2018 Olympics. At his first 2021-22 competition, the Japanese Championships in December, he did a brilliant short program and a strong, if less remarkable free skate, begun with a botched attempt to become the first to land a quadruple axel jump in competition.
Chen has won three straight world titles and was unbeaten for three seasons before placing third behind countryman Vincent Zhou and Uno at Skate America in October. Chen also followed an exceptional national championship short program with a less convincing free.
Chen’s included two falls, one on a quad and another on footwork, and his lowest free skate component scores since his first of six straight U.S. titles in 2017. They would have been the lowest had two of the nine judges not forgotten (or disregarded) the International Skating Union guidelines for scoring PCS when two falls are involved.
Some of Chen’s possible strategy against Hanyu came out at nationals.
Chen upped the value of his jump elements so that he can have an edge in maximum base value for both programs as compared to Hanyu’s from his national meet. In the short program, Chen’s base value was 49.87 to Hanyu’s 45.80; in the free, it was 101.24 to 92.90 (presuming a fully rotated quad axel for Hanyu).
The difference can quickly evaporate if Hanyu’s grades of execution and component scores are substantially higher – or if mistakes drop Chen’s base value.
“As competition goes, we always try to push ourselves,” Chen said Sunday. “That’s kind of where my mind is at.
“Clearly, today the program wasn’t perfect, so risk – reward, there’s always that game. As we get closer to the rest of the season, decisions will be made.”
Simple numerical comparison reveals why the U.S. women would need one of the three top Russians to implode (and errors from non-Russians) to get near the medals.
In international competition, the three Russians likely to go to Beijing (and sweep the podium) have season-best scores of 272.71, 236.78 and 232.37. The top U.S. score, by recently named 2022 Olympian Alysa Liu, is 219.24.
That came in Liu’s first significant competition of the season. Her scores trended down in three internationals since, and she had to withdraw from nationals before the free skate after a positive test for Covid. She will need to demonstrate fitness before going to Beijing.
Karen Chen, who joins Liu and new national champion Mariah Bell on the Olympic team, managed fourth behind three Russians at the 2021 Worlds. But she finished 8-plus points from third, even though bronze medalist Aleksandra Trusova was 10 points behind Chen after the short program.
In a media teleconference before nationals, Chen frankly admitted women’s skating feels like a two-tier competition, with the Russian quad squad on one level and everyone else trying to be the best of the rest.
“I’m going to be honest: yes, I’ve had those thoughts,” she said. “I think any athlete in a similar position would have similar thoughts.
“I talk a lot about focusing on myself and doing everything to the best of my ability because it helps me stay motivated and keep all the distractions away. Maybe my best obviously isn’t comparable to the Russians, but I can only expect the best out of myself. That’s what I choose to think about.”
A top eight finish for either U.S. entry would be a solid achievement in a discipline where the last U.S. medal was a bronze in 1988. Should Ashley Cain-Gribble/Timothy LeDuc and/or Alexa Knierim/Brandon Frazier skate flawlessly, it could be top six.
An event in which the U.S. had won just one bronze medal (1976) before 2006 has become the standard-bearer, with three different teams winning medals in four straight Winter Games: silver in 2006 and 2010, gold in 2014, bronze in 2018.
Because dance has no jump or throw elements, when costly mistakes are most likely to happen, its results are the most predictable based on past performances.
For 2022, that means French couple Gabriella Papadakis/Guillaume Cizeron and Russians Viktoria Sinitsina/Nikita Katsalapov are likely to get gold and silver (the French are favored), with three couples contending for bronze: Madison Chock/Evan Bates and Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue of the United States and Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier of Canada, with the Canadians now seemingly the best bet.
Hubbell, whose team has been a medalist at the last three world championships, insists the die isn’t yet cast.
“While from the outside it might look like there are two teams that have podium finishes on lock, they still have to go out and perform their best,” Hubbell said after her team finished second to Chock and Bates Saturday at nationals. “We look forward to the opportunity to continue the (U.S.) legacy.”
Russia should be a runaway winner, with the United States second and Japan likely to get its first Olympic team skating medal.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.
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