Five-ring Circus

American Women Used to Dominate in Figure Skating. What Happened?

GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 21:  Mirai Nagasu of the United States competes during the Ladies Single Skating Short Program on day twelve of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Gangneung Ice Arena on February 21, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
U.S. figure skater Mirai Nagasu competes during the Ladies Single Skating Short Program on Wednesday during the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Gangneung, South Korea. Harry How/Getty Images

Between 1992 and 2002, Americans Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinski, and Sarah Hughes all won individual gold medals for the United States in women’s figure skating. On Wednesday, all three women competing for the U.S. in the 2018 Olympics—Bradie Tennell, Karen Chen, and Mirai Nagasu—fell to the ice. According to USA Today, the three U.S. women combined for the lowest score for an American Olympic contingent since the advent of the short program in 1976.

While the falls weren’t necessarily expected, none of the Americans had any realistic hope of contending for a medal. How did U.S. women’s figure skating fall so far so fast? Here are a few theories.

The United States hasn’t adapted to the new scoring system. The International Skating Union’s new system, adopted in 2004, rewards difficult, higher-risk moves, especially in the latter part of the program when skaters are gliding across the ice on tired legs. (Skaters get a 10 percent bonus for jumps attempted in the second half of the program.) Russian skater Alina Zagitova has engineered her program for maximum points, backloading the routine with difficult maneuvers. American “quad king” Nathan Chen has also emphasized high-scoring maneuvers with great success. But in a New York Times opinion piece, Lipinski writes that young female skaters in the U.S. have been “rewarded not for innovating and taking risks—attempting new combos, for instance, or trying more difficult jumps—but for skating cleanly.” Both Nagasu—who landed a triple axel during the team event—and Tennell—who is capable of pulling off difficult competitions—are exceptions to that rule to some degree. But according to Lipinski, the U.S. won’t have a deep pool of world-class women until America develops a more Russian mindset, one in which “skaters come up under a system designed to encourage them to up the technical ante at a very young age.”

The top skaters in the U.S. don’t push each other to improve. Whereas Tennell, Nagasu, and Chen train in separate locations, Russia’s centralized sports system brings top athletes, such as Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva, together to train under the same coach. Competing against the best brings out the best, Medvedeva says. “In our group there are really so, so, so many young skaters, some of them doing such difficult elements, such difficult jumps,” she told ESPN. “It just forces you to be stronger. When you see the younger skater who is doing [something] more difficult, you feel so strange inside because you are older and you want to be stronger than them.”

Figure skating doesn’t draw the best American athletes. The Winter Olympics was once a breeding ground for female stars and crossover celebrities. Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill were hugely famous in the 1960s and 1970s, and Michelle Kwan, Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan, and Lipinski were all big stars in their own right. Yet the U.S. women haven’t won an Olympic medal since 2006, when Sasha Cohen took silver. At this point, the most famous skater in the United States is Tonya Harding, and she hasn’t competed in almost a quarter-century.

Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel theorizes that without superstars to look up to, many young athletes with acrobatic capabilities have turned to other sports like gymnastics, where the U.S. has dominated international competition for nearly two decades. (The semi-centralized system in American gymnastics has helped contribute to the team’s astonishing run of success. It has also helped abet the massive abuse problems that have plagued the sport.) The launch of the Winter X Games in 1997 also gave cold-weather athletes another outlet for their talents, one that, by comparison to figure skating, feels less stuck in the past.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Mirai Nagasu Is the Third Woman to Do a Triple Axel in the Olympics. Watch All Three.

An Interview with the Figure Skater Who Did the Only Legal Backflip in Olympic Competition

Catty Olympics Fans Rejoice: The Medvedeva–Zagitova Figure Skating Showdown Is Here