Gracie Gold competes in the women's free skate at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Iceberg Skating Palace on Feb. 20, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
Call it an unfulfilled expectation of excellence. Maybe the success has been taken for granted. Whatever phrase is hung on it, here’s the cold, hard fact: The United States has not won a world championship medal in ladies figure skating since 2006.
The current drought is the longest spell without an American woman stepping onto a worlds podium since Beatrix Loughran won the first U.S. ladies medal, a bronze, in 1924. Since then, the likes of Carol Heiss, Tenley Albright, Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill, and recently Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan, carried the U.S. banner and became household names in the process.
Since 2006, when gold medalist Kimmie Meissner and bronze medalist Sasha Cohen stepped off the worlds podium in Calgary, no U.S. woman has stepped up to take their place. The flags of Japan, South Korea, Russia and Italy have been raised since then, but no Stars and Stripes.
That leads to the obvious question as the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships get underway at Boston’s TD Garden: Is this the year the U.S. women break through and regain the podium? There are some who think it’s possible.
Take Johnny Weir, for example. The Olympian turned broadcast analyst thinks the home ice could boost the chances for Americans Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner and Mirai Nagasu.
“We saw it at the 2002 Olympics, with how well the American team did,” he said. “We saw it at the 2009 world championships in Los Angeles. Should one of these skaters, these ladies, really skate perfectly and blow the roof off the building, the judges will be hard-pressed to go against the wishes of a pro-American audience.”
Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion and Weir’s broadcast partner in Boston, leans toward Gold as the one with the potential to lead the U.S. ladies out of their medals desert.
“I think the American ladies are strong,” she said. “Gracie and Ashley have the technical content. They’re doing triple triples. Someone like Gracie, skating clean, skating lights out, adding the emotion, selling a program – I think a medal is not just a maybe. It should be hers to lose.”
Gold, the 2016 U.S. champion, came close at last year’s worlds, placing fourth. It was another step in a progression that has seen her steadily improve her worlds showings, after placing sixth in 2013 and fifth in 2014. She believes she is up to the challenge of taking that next step, onto the podium.
“If I can focus on myself, I think that a world medal is in my grasp and I can take it,” she said. “I can’t determine what color or how many points I’ll get, but I can determine how I skate. I’m confident I can skate two really amazing programs at worlds.”
Wagner has been focused in her preparation for worlds, staying home to train and fine-tune her routines.
“I turned down Four Continents so I could train, and that’s what I’ve been doing the past couple of months,” said the three-time U.S. champion. “I’m coming into this world championship physically very ready. I’m mentally at the point that it’s just up to me to do it. I feel like I’ve given so many of these responses and not actually skated on it, but I really do actually feel like I am prepared.
“I feel calm. I feel confident. It’s time to just go do the job, and I think that the rest will just fall into place. I think that this is definitely the year that, if we’re going to do it, this will give us great momentum in the sport.”
Nagasu, who only last week found out she would be competing at the world championships after Polina Edmunds dropped out with a bone bruise on her right foot, could be a surprise medalist.
The 22-year-old Nagasu is an underdog at the event, having not competed at worlds since 2010, when she finished seventh there just after her fourth-place showing at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. But Nagasu is coming off a silver medal at the Four Continents Championships, her best performance in a number of years.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve gone to worlds, so I don’t think there will be any expectations of me,” Nagasu said. “And I’m obviously the lowest ranked of our three ladies, so I think it’s great for me to have this opportunity to just even be at worlds and to hopefully skate to the best of my ability without as much pressure as they have going on for them.”
Wagner thinks those who have been critical of the lack of medals in the last decade aren’t seeing the whole picture.
“I think that everyone is so quick to say ‘The U.S. ladies aren’t good enough, the U.S. ladies just aren’t what they used to be,’ but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case,” she said. “I think the U.S. has really talented athletes. Internationally we’re seeing a competitive scene that we have never had to come up against before. The Russians are strong, the Japanese are strong – it seems that every country is putting out strong skaters. The field has changed so dramatically since the early ‘90s, the early 2000s, and I think that is one of the reasons we’ve had a drought for so long.”
An unusually higher level of skating at this point in the Olympic cycle, two years away from PyeongChang 2018, is something Lipinski has noticed as well.
“You hope that by the time you get to the Olympic year, skating is at its best,” she said. “We’re still quite a ways out from South Korea and the level that the skating is at now is just something that I’ve never really seen before. People are pushing the technical bar, and it’s just becoming more and more exciting.”
Wagner has focused her worlds preparation on the details that separate good from great.
“It’s not about just putting up the jumps and putting up the spins,” she said. “I think it’s more complicated than that. If you put me side by side with a Russian girl and we do the exact same program, the Russian girl is going to beat me because her jumps have difficult entries and exits, and everything is a little more controlled and connected.
“I need to have everything very precise,” she continued. “We’ve been working on spins and we’ve changed some of the entrances into jumps so there’s a little more going into them and they’re more sophisticated. And just putting down the jumps nicer and cleaner. Hopefully when I go into Boston everyone will see that in the span of two months I have completely upgraded the kind of skater that I am.”
Gold hopes to put two clean skates together after a less-than-stellar short program at the 2016 Four Continents Championships in Taiwan. She needed a clean free skate to finish fifth in a field that did not include the top Russian skaters.
“Four Continents didn’t strip me of any confidence, as much as a lot of people might think it would have,” she said. “For some reason I came back (home) and I just felt great again. I picked up my training after nationals like Four Continents never happened and I haven’t stopped to think about it. In some ways it’s good, because following nationals if my next event was just worlds, that would have been the last time I competed the ‘Firebird,’ which would be, not flawless, but nine out of 10. I feel good that, OK, we had a little misstep at Four Continents, now we can get back on the horse and deliver a 10 out of 10 Firebird.”
As Gold gets back on the horse, the United States will hope one of their ladies can turn American fortunes around and get back on the podium on home ice.