Caroline Zhang shows she wasn't the answer
To all of you so outraged after both the national championships and the Four Continents Championship because U.S. Figure Skating did not put Caroline Zhang on the team for next month’s senior World Championships:
Were you watching (as I was) the icenetwork.com coverage of the short program at the World Junior Championships Friday morning in Sofia, Bulgaria, where Zhang fell on her first jump, seemingly lost interest and wound up 10th?
If you were, it should be clear -- as I had pointed out -- that it was illogical to assume a world team of Zhang and Rachael Flatt would do better than the team resulting from the top two at the U.S. Championships: Alissa Czisny and Flatt. (Zhang was third at nationals.)
At stake is the number of spots in the women’s field at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Based on performances this season, I have written several times that it was very unlikely any two U.S. women could do well enough at the 2009 worlds (finishes adding up to 13 or fewer, such as sixth and seventh, or fourth and ninth, etc.) to secure three Olympic spots.
The problem is, other than Flatt, none of the current group of U.S. women has shown any consistency, and even Flatt struggled at Four Continents.
So here was Zhang, fresh off a solid fourth at Four Continents in a field in which the top three finishers could also be the top three at worlds. And then, to put it simply, she fell apart.
Her short program score, 47.64, was the lowest Zhang has recorded in a short program at an international event since her debut, on the Junior Grand Prix, in 2006. The two previous lows, 51.76 and 53.28, came at senior Grand Prix events this season.
Zhang’s technical score Friday was so poor it was beaten by 19 other skaters. Nineteen!
Zhang was world junior champion in 2007 and world junior silver medalist in 2008. Now it will be very surprising for her to win any medal. Such regression raises a lot of questions -- coaching, commitment -- she will need to answer before next season.
Anyone obviously can have a bad day. And because I am a long way from Bulgaria, I do not know if Zhang was ill or had skate problems or anything else that might have dragged her down. (Update: I asked U.S. Figure Skating spokesperson Scottie Bibb today to check on Zhang, and Bibb replied -- after consulting the team leader -- that Zhang was not sick.) And she is still two months from her 16th birthday.
Which brings me back to the start.
This is what I wrote after Czisny, 21, won nationals despite a mediocre long program:
"So, did Czisny get benefit of the doubt from judges who knew it would be good for the sport to have a woman of a certain age rather than a teeny teen as champion? Probably.
"But it's not as if any of her rivals clearly deserved to win any more than she did."
I also came away from nationals with the feeling that a healthy Mirai Nagasu, who staggered into fifth on a bad foot, has the most potential for a high Olympic finish among the current group of U.S. competitors.
Nagasu, the 2008 U.S. champion, has the "look-at-me" quality, the "it" factor, lacking in the others.
But they all are lacking in one area or another. Sadly, Zhang was lacking Friday in many.
-- Philip Hersh
Photo: Caroline Zhang at the Four Continents Championships. Credit: Jonathan Hayward / Associated Press