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For Figure Skaters, Olympic Pressure Makes Program Choice That Much More Important

By Nick McCarvel | Oct. 26, 2017, 10:53 a.m. (ET)

Ashley Wagner competes in her free skate at the 2016 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Xcel Energy Center on Jan. 23, 2016 in St Paul, Minn.


It could be – perhaps – the most important decision that a figure skater makes in the four-year cycle that dictates their sport: What are my programs going to be for the Olympic season?

The choice, toiled over for months (or years) on end and made final in the spring or summer before the Olympic year, sometimes ends up not being the right one. And – at the last minute – is changed. What can follow is chaos. Or (the skater hopes) brilliance.

“It’s an Olympic year and – I remember this – picking your programs for that year is unlike any other pressure that you’ve had in the last three years,” said Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champ, in an interview this week with icenetwork. The thought is: “‘Is this my Olympic program?’ You put so much pressure on it that at some point you have to say, ‘OK, I’m going to live in this and this is it.’”

Lipinski, now an NBC commentator, was addressing questions about program changes for two of the best American female skaters: Three-time national champion and 2014 Olympic team medalist Ashley Wagner scrapped her much-talked-about free skate to the “La La Land” soundtrack last month, while reigning national champ Karen Chen is on not her second free skate option of the season, but third.

And – with the figure skating grand prix already underway – now the question becomes, Was this the right choice?

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It’s a gamble the skater(s) feels as though he, she or they have to take.

“I’m pretty familiar with scrapping programs,” Wagner told reporters at the Team USA Media Summit last month. In January of 2014, weeks before the Sochi Games, Wagner switched her free skate after making the Olympic team.

“I started feeling the same way that I was in 2014,” she explained. “For me I knew that this feeling wasn’t going to go away, and if I’m doubting a program it will only grow and grow from there. You put in so much work into these programs – you spend a week (and spend money) getting something choreographed and then at the end of the day say, ‘Well, that was fun… but that’s not it.’ It’s a tough call to make, especially going back to a program that the judges have seen before.”

The program that Wagner is alluding to is her free skate from the 2015-16 season, set to a “Moulin Rouge” medley and used at the world championships in Boston that year, where Wagner had a career-best finish, winning silver to give the U.S. women their first world medal in a decade.

“It was an option I had to weigh and I decided that the program could be done better, that it could be done in a way that is surprising and new and refreshing,” Wagner said. “It’s a challenge that I’m absolutely comfortable dealing with.”

It’s a challenge that, according to Lipinski, a skater has to take on late and then find consistency in a short period of time. While the Olympics loom just over three months away now, other skaters have had programs set since May or June (or earlier) and the focus is turned to building up their technical elements, not trying to craft a new look for the biggest event in the sport.

At some point “gaining consistency and confidence is more important than worrying if this is the right program or not,” Lipinski said. “You also can come to this point where you say, ‘Clearly this isn’t working and I hate it and have to change it.’”

That’s what Chen did with the skating classic “Carmen” that she had been working on, instead now working on a “Slow Dancing in the Big City” free skate, which will make its debut at the Skate Canada International grand prix event this weekend. Wagner – also – will be competing in Regina, Saskatchewan.

“I trashed it,” Chen told The Mercury News of her “Carmen” program. “It’s out of nowhere. ‘Carmen’ wasn’t doing it for me. It wasn’t the Olympic program I wanted. I wanted something I feel great skating to.”

The process is complicated: Skaters work with their teams – often a coach and trusted choreographer – to pick their programs, then set about (as Wagner described) choreographing and laying out the program. For American skaters, they attend a high-performance camp known as Champs Camp each late August to present their chosen pieces to a panel made up of judges and other respected officials who are able to advise whether the packaged final product feels like it’s presenting the best of the individual or team.

And if it’s not? Usually, then, it’s, ‘Let’s start from ground zero.’

“You will get a ‘yay’ or a ‘nay’ and whether or not you follow that advice is up to you,” said U.S. ice dancer Alex Shibutani, who – alongside sister Maia – are two-time reigning national champions. “We had that experience during the last Olympic cycle and we made the switch to a new program in August. It’s definitely a difficult decision and it can feel uncomfortable.”

But, out of the uncomfortable period, the hope for something greater stirs. 

Two-time reigning world champion Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia – largely seen as the skater to beat in the women’s event at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 come February – changed her free skate last month, as well, choosing music from “Anna Karenina.”

While “Moulin Rouge” brought Wagner her greatest success so far in her career, however, Lipinski still cautions that it is risky to go back to a program that judges have already seen in prior years – particularly in a sport like figure skating that honors originality.

“I know that Ashley feels very comfortable skating ‘Moulin Rouge,’ but is that her Olympic program? I feel like there are so many question marks when it comes to music this year. She has obviously skated that program, loves it and feels confident in it, and has good memories from that which always helps.”

Chen, for her part, will be using her own choreography for her new free skate, a vehicle that could help her settle sooner versus later in what will be a rush to feel ready for not only the U.S. championships in January, but – hopefully – the Olympics to follow in February.

Does a change in character make one or both of these leading American women Olympic stars then? That’s the risk we’ll see play out starting in Canada this weekend, not to mention as the season moves on.

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