Coming of age in skating should not be like this
Congratulations Mirai Nagasu. You just won the U.S. figure skating title.
Same to you, Rachel Flatt. You won the free skate and earned a silver medal.
Your prize? You both get to watch the World Championships two months from now from the comfort of your own homes. Typically, your medals would have earned you a trip. But that wasn't enough this time.
Both Nagasu and Flatt are still flying high right now from their performances, in which they each brought the crowd at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships to its feet in St. Paul, Minn., this past weekend. When asked when she might come down from that high, Flatt said in a telephone interview, "I have no idea."
Here's a guess: In March, when she's not competing at the World Championships in Sweden.
By virtue of their age, Nagasu, 14, and Flatt, 15, cannot compete at the World Championships. Nagasu and Flatt could have landed 20 triples instead of the seven they each did Saturday night and that wouldn't have made a difference. The International Skating Union still wouldn't give them an invite.
The ISU devised an age limit after Tara Lipinski became the youngest woman to win an Olympic gold medal when she was 15 back in 1998. These days, skaters must be 15 by July 1 of the previous year to qualify for the World Championships.
"It is kind of a bummer," said Flatt, who at 15, missed the age-limit cutoff by 20 days. "But it could be worse I guess. I've always wanted to come to nationals and skate my personal best. It just all came together."
Because of the so-called "Lipinski rule," only one member of the U.S. podium this year, third-place finisher Ashley Wagner, who is 16, earned a flight to Sweden. The United States, which can send three skaters to the worlds, is sending its third-place, fifth-place (Bebe Liang) and seventh-place (Kimmie Meissner) finishers to Sweden. Usually, the United States sends its top three finishers to the World Championships.
Interestingly, Lipinski was watching the women's competition Saturday night. Now retired from skating, Lipinski spends most of her time in Los Angeles, and has done some acting on TV.
She laughs when the "Lipinski rule" is mentioned by name, but it's not as if she had anything to do personally with its creation. Rules are rules, she says, but she completely understands if this young crop of skaters is disappointed.
"I think it's difficult, especially if they place [in the top three] and most likely would have gone to worlds. But at the same time, when I won my nationals [in 1997], that was the best part," Lipinski said in a telephone interview. "I'll always remember skating well and being in the kiss and cry when I heard my scores."
"If they told me, 'OK, hold back one more year,' I tell you, I'd be so ready to go the next year," Lipinski added.
Lipinski hedges when asked if the rule should be stricken from the books. Skaters have to compete in the confines of the rules of those times.
"It's hard to say," Lipinski said. "I wish the judging system was the way it was now when I skated. But I still believe the best skater is going to come out of it."
And waiting a year might not be all bad, after all, she said.
"I've watched my videos from when I was 13 and 14 and by 15, I was so much stronger," Lipinski said.
Initially, the goal of the age limit was to prevent young girls from doing too many difficult jumps so their bodies wouldn't suffer such long-term injuries. If that indeed was the aim, it hasn't taken effect. No skaters are going to do doubles all day instead of trying to master triple-triples until they turn 15.
It's not as if this comes as news to anyone in the skating community. Nagasu and Flatt were well aware they had no chance of competing for a spot on the world team long before they arrived in St. Paul for the nationals.
But the way these young women skated at these nationals underscores the very reason why this rule should no longer be on the books.
When asked if she would stop doing triples for a year, Flatt laughed. "Nope," she said. "I'm going to keep on working."
What makes this rule all the more inane is that the ISU also overhauled its judging system, which now puts a lot more emphasis on the skaters' technical ability. Now, each element is given a value, and the more triples and quads you try, the more points you earn. One other way skaters can earn valuable points is by contorting their backs in all sorts of mind-numbing spin positions -- many of which are OK for young girls now, but many wonder how well they'll be able to walk, much less skate, down the line.
The truth is, many of these girls are more than aware that if they don't push the envelope now, there might never be a next year.
Look at the 1999 U.S. Championships. That year, Naomi Nari Nam placed second, but was too young to compete at the worlds. She was considered a "can't miss" kid. But injuries thwarted her career, and although she has tried to make a comeback in pairs, she has never reached that goal of skating in the World Championships.
When asked about 14-year-old Caroline Zhang, who placed fourth at these nationals and has mesmerized many with her back-bending spins and breathtaking spirals, Johnny Weir said he was amazed by her flexibility. Yet Weir added, "I'm concerned about her back when she's 17, 18."
The sport has become a young girl's frontier. Meissner claimed the world title at 16. Two years later at these national championships, she couldn't keep up with the young crop of talent, placing fourth in the short program and falling three times in the long program to finish seventh overall. This is not to say that Meissner, now a veteran at 18, can't and won't make a comeback, but a growth spurt hasn't helped her with landing her jumps this year.
This is not to say that older skaters can't compete in this sport. There are some women who will beat the odds and compete longer than we've ever imagined. But why should they have more of a right to win a coveted world crown while younger national champions are resigned to sit at home watching "Hannah Montana?"
The other absurdity to the age rule is there is no age limit on any other senior-level event, except the Olympics. (Japan's Mao Asada, who has landed triple axels, had to sit out the 2006 Olympics because of her age). A 14-year-old can compete in the senior-level Grand Prix series and even qualify for the Grand Prix final, as Zhang did this season. Yet Zhang is deemed too young to skate at the worlds.
Imagine telling a 14-year-old tennis star: "Hey, you're ranked No. 1, but you're too young to play at Wimbledon."
That's what Nagasu and Flatt have been told.
Instead of competing in Sweden, they'll be at the World Junior Championships from Feb. 25 to March 2 in Bulgaria. Most Americans, who tune in to skating once a year, or once every four years, won't see them next until the 2009 nationals in Cleveland. For a sport dying to develop personality leading up to the 2010 Olympics, a year might seem like an eternity. And if they qualify for the 2009 World Championships, that will be their only trip there before the 2010 Games.
So much of being a top-flight skating star is experience. Sarah Hughes was grandfathered into the 1999 World Championships even though she was 13 because she had medaled at the previous World Junior Championships. She placed seventh at the worlds that year, fifth the next and won a bronze medal in 2001. At the 2002 Olympics, when Hughes was 16, she won the Olympic gold medal.
Nagasu and Flatt will just have to make due. Flatt said she'll still tune in and watch the World Championships even though she won't be there.
"Yes," Flatt said. "I will. It should be interesting."
It sure should.
Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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