Ever since Sarah Hughes’ unexpectedly brilliant free skate at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, I’ve been a huge fan of figure skating. That night, I was enchanted with the combination of artistry and technical ability that was demanded in this often overlooked sport. It was thrilling – I knew that this was just the beginning of many magical nights I would witness in figure skating history.
One of those entrancing nights was the Ladies Singles event in the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships held last month in Boston, Massachusetts. This is the competition that traditionally decides the athletes who will compete in the upcoming Olympics.
A definite crowd favorite and potential athlete to represent Team USA at this year’s 2014 Winter Games in Sochi was former U.S. Champion and one-time Olympian Mirai Nagasu. From the opening strains of George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” to the closing notes of iconic music from James Bond, Nagasu delivered two powerful performances that were worthy of a medal and a spot to represent the U.S. at the Olympics.
Deservingly, Nagasu won a bronze medal. Traditionally, the three Nationals podium medalists are given the Team USA Olympic spots – but this time, it was two-time national champion Ashley Wagner, the fourth place winner, who was awarded one of three spots to go to Sochi in February. Tears streaming down her face during the concluding Gala exhibition, Nagasu skated with her heart on her sleeve – she would not be returning to the Olympics this year.
Figure skating is an intense and complex sport. Injuries, nerves, weight-gain or even a brief moment of lost concentration can lead to major repercussions. The burdensome title of being the “next Michelle Kwan” has undeniably played an impact on Nagasu’s spotty career after the Vancouver Olympic Games. Deficient performances on the Grand Prix Circuit, failing to earn a spot on the past few World teams, and an overall inconsistent resume led to one harsh reality: Mirai’s time in the limelight of competitive figure skating was done after the Vancouver Olympics.
That notion, however, was completely destroyed through Nagasu’s short program and long program at last month’s Nationals. As the third place winner, she rightfully should have won a place on the USA team. Never in figure skating history has a skater without account of injury been looked over for the Olympic team after placing a medal in the Nationals – until Mirai Nagasu.
To be knocked around in the highest level of competitive figure skating in the world and to make a comeback when it matters most is a fairytale come true for Nagasu and her team who have patiently waited for her return to glory. For her well-earned spot at the Olympics to be stripped away and handed on a silver platter to a skater who could not withstand the pressure is not just a snub, but a slap in the face for Asian Americans.
Wagner, a former two-time national champion, has been known for her inconsistent triple-triple combinations and for her two-footed landings. While she is on record a more consistent skater than Nagasu, nerves and a lack of confidence have prevented her from reaching the top of the figure skating world.
So why is it now that the organization overlooked its past decisions and chose a skater who was unable to place in the Nationals? In my eyes, it must be a matter of race.
Sure, Asian and Asian-American figure skaters have historically dominated the world of figure skating. Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi were two of the most popular and successful American skaters of all time, but they are anomalies to the Golden Girl myth. No matter what country they would have represented, Kwan and Yamaguchi were prodigious, marketable figure skaters who would have achieved gold and glory anywhere and at any time. Asian-American skaters who have not yet reached their peak of success have been given nowhere near the same opportunities or treatment that these iconic skaters once had.
In an effort to keep Ladies’ figure skating appealing, it isn’t a mere coincidence that all three girls representing the U.S. are porcelain-skinned and blonde – the perfect ideal all-American girl that has been embedded into our minds. Ashley Wagner, with endorsements from giants like Nike and CoverGirl, has been the popular face of Team USA for the 2014 Winter Olympics – for several months well before the Nationals even took place.
I think it’s only fair to pull the “race card” out in a controversial decision that left no explanation but to look at the obvious differences between white Ashley Wagner and Japanese-American Mirai Nagasu. To strip away the Olympic spot from a former champion and the only woman out of the four nationalists who has already been to the Olympics, it is honestly difficult to believe that race was not even a fraction of the reason why Mirai Nagasu wasn’t chosen.