By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Sports Editor
For one night, it seemed that Mirai Nagasu had erased a vivid image from a year ago. At the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, she was stunned at her seventh-place finished and buried her face in her hands.
On Saturday in Boston however, her hands were covering a huge grin of excitement. She jumped into second place after the free skate and ensured herself a place in the top three and presumably, a berth to next month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
The demons were seemingly exorcised.
But Sunday morning, the nightmare returned.
Despite an inspired performance and a finish in third, the U.S. Figure Skating Association announced it had chosen the fourth-place skater, two-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner, over Nagasu to occupy the third and final slot on the U.S. Olympic team.
The decision came in spite of a performance at Nationals that Wagner herself described as “horrible” and a “tearful little wimp out on the ice.”
While the U.S. championships count toward the Olympic selection process but are not binding, the results from the event have essentially dictated the choices of athletes to send to the Olympic Games. The only exceptions have been in cases where a competitor is injured.
By dipping to fourth place to send Wagner to Sochi instead of Nagasu, who finished third this weekend, the USFSA hopes it can avoid another medal shutout in women’s figure skating like the one in Vancouver that was its first since 1964.
Explaining the decision, USFSA President Patricia St. Peter said the committee considers performance over the past year, and not just the finish at nationals.
“If you look at Ashley Wagner’s record and performance, she’s got the top credentials of any of our female athletes,” St. Peter said.
Wagner was the most accomplished skater in the field, considered the Americans’ best chance for a medal at Sochi. She was fifth at worlds, helping the U.S. earn that third Olympic berth, and won the bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final.
Nagasu was fourth in the 2010 Games as a 16-year-old. But that didn’t get her anywhere because the selection committee considers only performances from the past year, when she mostly struggled before a resurgent performance at Nationals.
Nagasu choked back tears as she took the ice for the Sunday evening exhibition, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd that then fell so silent during her performance that you could hear her skates gliding across the ice. After her program, she wiped away more tears as she skated off to another standing ovation.
Nagasu declined to speak to reporters afterwards but later released a statement.
“I’m disappointed in the decision. Though I may not agree with it, I have to respect the decision the federation made,” she said.
St. Peter said Nagasu had inquired about an appeal, but none had been filed on her behalf as of Monday afternoon.
An emotional Wagner said she had mixed feelings but was happy the federation was able to overlook “one bad skate,” referring to her performance over the weekend. In both her short program and free skate, she fell several times and failed to complete elements that are considered essential for success at the Olympic level.
Also selected for Sochi was 15-year-old Polina Edmunds, who took the silver on Saturday and for whom the Olympics will be her first senior international event.
The final approval for the selection of athletes going to Sochi still rests with the U.S. Olympic Committee, though there has been no indication of any changes to be made.
Calls and emails from The Rafu to Nagasu and the USOC were unanswered late Monday afternoon. In an email received Tuesday, USFSA Director of Communications Barbara Reichert referred to an article in The Boston Globe that attempted to explain the Olympic team selection process and seemed to defend the federation’s decision.
“Under the US association’s rules, which will keep you scrolling for a while, Wagner earned the spot based on her body of work. She could check all of the required boxes — the national, world championship, and Grand Prix results — and Nagasu could not,” stated the article written by John Powers, who has many years of experience covering the U.S. Championships.
“They followed their process,” Powers wrote, admitting that Nagasu had her best skate in years over the weekend, but also calling her “a loose wire for her entire career.”
Of the top four finishers at Nationals on Saturday, only Nagasu completed her routines without a fall. She wore a serious expression for most of her James Bond-inspired performance, avoiding any major mistakes. When she saw she was in second behind Edmunds, she leapt out of her chair with excitement.
Nagasu didn’t expect to get any sleep Saturday night. Her voice cracked as she made her case for the team.
“As the only person who’s already been to the Olympics, I really want to go back again,” she said.
But with the announcement Sunday, her Olympic hopes were dashed, and a flood of support for her – and backlash against the decision – followed.
Former Olympian, world champion and five-time U.S. champion pairs skater Tai Babilonia was one of the many who posted messages on Nagasu’s Facebook page.
“I think Mirai Nagasu should have been sent to the world championships! But what do I know?” Babilonia wrote with a degree of sarcasm. “Disappointed with whoever made that horribly bad decision.”
Philip Hersh, a sportswriter and columnist for The Chicago Tribune, wrote that the USFSA used “vague rules” to pick Wagner and “dump” Nagasu.
A petition was established Monday on the Change.org website, with the goal of persuading St. Peter and the federation to reverse the decision.
Questions have arisen over the motivation of the USFSA, and how its rules and decision-making may have been affected by outside entities.
Hersh and others have described the procedures to allow the federation to pick any skater it deems fit as “purposely vague,” and suggested the tally of the vote among the nine-member panel be revealed.
There is also the issue over whether the decision to send Wagner to Sochi was a foregone conclusion, regardless of her showing in Boston.
Early Sunday, USA Today quoted sources with knowledge of the selection process as saying Wagner would be on the Olympic team, “even if she’s 10th.”
NBC, the network that has paid enormous sums of money to broadcast the Olympics, has featured Wagner prominently in its advertisements for the upcoming Games. With one of the projected American stars – skiier Lindsay Vonn – scratched for Sochi due to injury, some are wondering if the network exerted influence over the choice to keep another of its featured faces in the fold for the event.
The website for NBC’s “Today” show posted an article on Dec. 11 in which Wagner shares her workout and makeup tips to “Look like an Olympian.”
In a commentary in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, columnist Jeff Yang pointed to “the Myth of the Golden Girl,” insisting there are other factors that must be considered in the matter, including race, whether conscious or unconscious.
“Wagner’s flowing blond hair, bellflower-blue eyes and sculpted features mark her as a sporting archetype,” Yang wrote, citing how some commentators have described Nagasu with epithets like “adorable” and “cute.”
Reichert responded to the WSJ piece on Friday, defending the USFSA’s decision as well as its process for athlete selection, and flatly denying any form of racial preference.
“U.S. Figure Skating takes very seriously any implied reference that there was discrimination in the selection of the 2014 Olympic figure skating team,” Reichert wrote. “We challenge any such implication, particularly given the fact that more than 25 percent of our Olympic team members are Asian-American.”
The New York Times called figure skating “a sport governed by the subjectivity of judging, reputation matters.” A Yahoo Sports story on the decision ran with a headline stating that Wagner was “gifted” a spot on the U.S. squad for Sochi.
Despite the current controversy, Wagner’s talent and experience could show itself in big ways in Sochi, and her presence will be a boost to American medal hopes in the inaugural Team Skating event.
That all must be little consolation for Nagasu, who has been named an alternate to both the Olympic team and the squad the U.S. will send to Saitama, Japan, for the World Championships in March. She will be one of the three skaters the U.S. sends to the Four Continents tournament in Taipei next week.
Until then, the 20-year-old from Arcadia may be able to find solace in supportive voices, near and far, including that of Kristi Yamamguchi, who knows a thing or two about figure skating and Olympic dreams.
“So happy,” Yamaguchi, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist, wrote on Nagasu’s Twitter page after her performance on Saturday. “Four years of perseverance pays off. Great skate!”
— Additional reporting for this story from the Associated Press