Will The United States Ever Have A Breakout Senior Figure Skater?
The Grand Prix can be challenging to break into. Countries with deep fields in one or more disciplines can't necessarily advocate for all of their skaters to get spots, and there are limits to the number of entrants per country (based on World Championship placements) and per event (ten skaters/teams per discipline).
Even if the country doesn't have a surplus of top skaters, countries with underdeveloped skating programs can't necessarily squeeze their skaters into one of the limited Grand Prix spots unless the skater is one of the top competitors in the world (rare) or is really lucky (luck tends to vary season by season. This was not a particularly lucky season for middle-of-the-pack skaters). In other words, breaking out as a senior is not easy.
Enter Senior B competitions. They are what they sound like: a string of competitions that doesn't limit entrants in the same way as the Grand Prix. Many countries, both strong and weak, use them to showcase skaters who lack opportunities or need additional experience to adjust to senior-level competitions. For the first time ever, the United States played host to a Senior B: The U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City, Utah.
In order to select which U.S. or Canada venue would host the event, numerous clubs applied to the International Skating Union. Even some very prestigious pre-existing competitions, such as The Glacier Falls Classic in Anaheim, Calif., applied and did not win the opportunity to host the event (although word in the community is that Glacier Falls had a date conflict and could not accomodate the event at the appropriate time). So Salt Lake won the opportunity to welcome nearly 100 skaters hoping to improve their world rankings and get international exposure.
The question is, who benefitted from this event?
Sure, the cry for a North American-based Senior B event (they're almost entirely based in Europe) were heard loud and clear, but was this event the best way to go? Timing-wise, it was the first major Senior International of the season, meaning that there wasn't any reason to discourage skaters from attending.
For U.S. men, this was a wonderful opportunity to showcase some who've never had the opportunity to participate in the Grand Prix. But why send skaters with some international experience when the U.S. has so many men who never get any international opportunities? Where were Scott Dyer and Sean Rabbitt? One could argue that the goal was a solid set of medals for the U.S. (and the U.S. men did sweep the medal podium), but who is to say that Dyer or Rabbitt or any other untested talent wouldn't have done just as well?
AS FOR THE LADIES
On the women's side, why send Agnes Zawadzki and Gracie Gold when they are both scheduled to compete on the Grand Prix and plenty of other top U.S. ladies spent this weekend training at the rink? I definitely see the argument that Gold and Zawadzki are hot skaters at the moment, but they are already skaters with growing international fanbases and, again, plenty of chances to go abroad and show their skills.
Why not give the chance to someone who doesn't have the opportunity? How about freeing up some room at the Junior Grand Prix level by sending a veteran of that series (perhaps Vanessa Lam) to Senior B's and rewarding a deserving junior with one of those slots? It's worth noting that the U.S. has 13 young women up for consideration for the two or three spots at each of seven events, and while some of these ladies received two assignments, some received none.
"OWN THE PODUM"
It's this medal-centric view that I sometimes misunderstand. There's definitely a challenging situation here: send someone who's a likely medal contender or send someone who could, with some experience, eventually become a medal contender. It's this critical developmental experience that skaters need and have a hard time getting. Theoretically, if skating were a consistent enough pursuit, there would be no reason not to invest in just a select group of skaters.
But skating is far from consistent. Each season, skaters get injured, have off days during competitive seasons, and struggle to keep up with the ever-growing expenses of elite skating. Like any sport, skating is a physical, mental and emotional challenge, and so few have the exact elements to rise to the top: talent, physique, bank account, access to facilities, personal support, mental toughness and so many other things.
If the United States--or any country--has enough skaters who've managed to make it to that level, why not give as many as possible the chance to represent the U.S. abroad? When you consider the number of teeny changes that could end a skater's career at any given moment, it seems foolish not to take advantage of all the possible skaters.
AROUND THE WORLD
My point is, even though I love skaters like Max Aaron (and was quite disappointed to see him miss out on the Grand Prix), I want to see breakthroughs. When I watch an international like a Senior B or a spring non-qualifying competition, I want to pick out some fresh talent with loads of potential.
I don't focus on medals or placements when it comes to skaters I love (for instance, one of my favorite Russian skaters, Sofia Biryukova, typically doesn't place that well in competitions), but I know that so many of my favorite up-and-comers miss out on opportunities because the U.S. tends to put most or all of its eggs in one proverbial basket, and that's not necessarily the way to produce long-term success.
Just think about it this way: if the U.S. hadn't allowed a young spitfire to compete at 1994 World Championships when big names bailed, the greatest skater of all time may not have gotten her start. She managed to secure two spots for the U.S. at 1995 Worlds (something her more experienced teammate, Nicole Bobek, couldn't do) and kicked off her legendary career, which ultimately produced two Olympic medals, five World Titles and nine National Championships. Michelle Kwan was well worth that risk. Is anyone else?
If this selection pattern continues, we may never know.