Years of instability could cost Americans in Sochi
OMAHA, Neb. (AP)
There's no use worrying how the U.S. pairs will do next year at the Sochi Olympics.
Simply getting to the Winter Games is of far bigger concern.
A decade of instability has the Americans facing the prospect of being able to send only one pairs team to Sochi, a shocking prospect for a country that considers itself a figure skating powerhouse. Not since 1924 have the Americans sent only one pair to the Olympics, and they had three for much of the 1960s, `70s, `80s and `90s.
''It's frustrating,'' conceded Dalilah Sappenfield, one of the top pairs coaches in the country. ''Everyone wants that quick fix and quick success and, in pairs, it's not necessarily so. If we can get (teams) to stay together, that will help us create a little buzz and give us a chance to compete with the rest of the world.''
The state of American pairs is in such sorry shape there are only 10 teams competing at this week's U.S. Figure Skating Championships, none of whom was on the podium last year. Defending champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin are out while he recovers from hip surgery, but silver medalists Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker, and bronze medalists Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, have split up. (Ladwig is at nationals competing with a new partner, Lindsay Davis.)
Denney and Coughlin have petitioned for a spot at worlds, which are March 10-17 in London, Ontario, and Sappenfield said she is optimistic Coughlin will ''not only be ready, but ready to compete well.'' Denney and Coughlin were eighth at worlds last year, their first season together.
If Denney and Coughlin can't compete, the Americans will be forced two send two untested teams to worlds, and hope they can do well enough to earn the U.S. two spots for Sochi. The teams would have to finish with a combined placement of 28 or better (12th and 16th, for example) - no sure thing in a discipline where it's unusual for newcomers to crack the top 10.
In fact, only two of the pairs competing at nationals, NHK bronze medalists Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, and Alexa Scimeca and Christopher Knierim, have even met the minimum technical score required to compete at worlds.
''Pairs now is really the red-headed stepchild (of American skating),'' said John Zimmerman, who with Kyoko Ina was the last U.S. pairs team to win a world or Olympic medal, a bronze in 2002. ''We've got to get that back on track.''
As expected, Castelli and Shnapir won the short program Thursday. Their score of 62.27 points was nine points ahead of Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay, a chasm-like gap heading into Saturday's free skate.
''It's always in the back of our heads,'' Castelli said of the importance of this year. ''But at the end of the day, we like to focus on one day at a time. We can't jump too far ahead, otherwise our heads will be spinning. We'll worry about everything else on Sunday.''
The Americans have never won an Olympic title in pairs, and they haven't even medaled at the Winter Games since Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard's bronze in 1988. But until a decade ago, the Americans at least were competitive.
Since then, U.S. pairs have simply gone off the rails.
Forget medals, the Americans have only managed one top-five finish at worlds in the last 10 years. And that fourth place by Rena Inoue and John Baldwin came against a watered-down post-Olympic field in 2006. No U.S. pair has made the Grand Prix final in the last five years.
It hasn't been much more promising at the junior level, where Castelli and Shnapir's bronze at the 2009 junior world championships is the only medal in the past five years. It's been four years since an American team has made the junior Grand Prix final.
While physiology and perception have played a part in the drought, the biggest factor has been longevity. Or lack of it.
''We wanted to prove that perseverance pays off. And being together,'' Castelli said. ''Just hard work.''
It takes years to develop the kind of unison, chemistry and cohesiveness that make pairs so spectacular to watch. But unlike the Russian and Chinese pair teams, which stay together for decades, the Americans have all the staying power of Kim Kardashian.
''You've got to stay together. That's the main ingredient,'' Zimmerman said. ''The rule of thumb is you have to give it three years ... and no one seems to have the patience.''
One rough season - even one bad competition, sometimes - and an announcement of a split is almost certain to follow. Look at entry lists from recent nationals, and you need a flow chart to keep track of who's with who.
That, or Soap Opera Digest.
''We have a lot of talent in our country,'' Sappenfield said. ''It's a matter of getting the right teams together and keeping them together.''
That takes time, though, and Sochi is less than 13 months away.