NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — For all its strength and elegance, grace and power, the sport of figure skating tends to court controversy.
Just look at the number of films and documentaries about Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, or the scandal in the pairs competition that rocked the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and led to major changes in scoring.
Well, it happened again on Sunday — though to a much lesser extent — when U.S. Figure Skating announced that Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown will join medals favorite Nathan Chen on the American team for the Beijing Olympics.
Chen was a lock even before flying to a sixth consecutive national championship, but it was the runner-up that raised eyebrows: 17-year-old rising star Ilia Malinin. He nailed just about every jump during his closing free skate, including the difficult quad lutz, quad toe loop and quad salchow, to put his name in the ring for Beijing.
Instead of making the three-man team, though, the selection committee passed over Malinin for third-place finisher Vincent Zhou and Jason Brown, choosing to send two skaters with experience over one with youthful exuberance.
“I think as you guys all know, I’ve been in this for so many years — now 20 years — and it feels like I’ve been through every single scenario: the young kid that makes it, the guy that gets left off the team. And I so feel for him,” said Brown, 27, who failed to qualify for the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang after finishing ninth at the 2014 Sochi Games.
“I’m so incredibly proud of how dense the men’s field has become,” Brown continued. “It’s just remarkable. And just watching (Malinin) grow and shine — he was unbelievable tonight. There’s nothing else I can say.”
Perhaps he was too unbelievable.
The selection criteria used by U.S. Figure Skating puts an emphasis on the national championships, but it also takes into account a skater’s body of work. That’s why women’s favorite Alysa Liu and pairs favorites Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier successfully petitioned for a spot on the Olympic team, even though they withdrew from nationals when Liu and Frazier returned positive COVID-19 tests.
Malinin’s score of 302.48 points Sunday put him in the upper echelon of figure skating. But it also was nearly 80 points higher than his Grand Prix performances at last year’s Skate America and Skate Canada in November.
“I definitely wasn’t expecting to skate this good,” Malinin acknowledged Sunday, “especially to place second.”
Brown, meanwhile, won a lower-level event in Finland in October. He was second to Chen at Skate Canada and third behind Japanese rivals Yuma Kagiyama and Shun Sato at the Internationaux de France in his two Grand Prix assignments.
He outscored Malinin’s pre-nationals best by at least 60 points in each of those competitions.
That’s the argument thousands of fans took to social media Sunday night in support of Brown making the team.
The argument just as many made for Malinin was simple: The self-proclaimed quad god, while not nearly as polished as Brown, can unload the kind of insane jumps that are necessary to compete on the Olympic stage. Along with his four quads Sunday — Brown fell on his only quad attempt — Malinin also landed a triple axel and two triple-triple combinations.
It begs the question: Do you go with exciting youngster with the high ceiling or the safe veteran with the high floor?
This isn’t the first time U.S. Figure Skating has had to make such a choice.
The same year Brown made his first Olympics, the selection committee chose for the women’s team national champ Gracie Gold, silver medalist Polina Edmunds and fourth-place finisher Ashley Wagner. In doing so, it passed over bronze medalist Mirai Nagasu, even though she had finished fourth at the 2010 Games in Vancouver.
And what of Zhou, who finished sixth four years ago in South Korea? His biggest problem has been consistency, and that showed at nationals. The 21-year-old was dynamic in setting a personal best during his short program Saturday, then fell on just about every jump he attempted during a dismal free skate Sunday.
Yet his experience from Pyeongchang, coupled with a strong body of work that includes a head-to-head win over Chen at Skate America, evidently made up for Zhou’s roller coaster fourth-place finish in Nashville.
Now, along with Chen and Brown, he gives the Americans three skaters with Olympic experience headed to Beijing.
And one in Malinin with a bright future waiting at home as the first alternate.
“I think this team is incredible, just the amount of experience we all have,” Chen said. “Regardless of anything, we’re going to have great skates there. And going back to experience, I think it’s so important. I’ve been to events for the first time and things didn’t necessarily go the way I wanted them to. It’s really daunting. So the experience of going to one and knowing what to expect, and having guys like (Zhou and Brown) — it’s great to have a team like this.”
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