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Human Zambonis, home cooking, Zhang's agony, Nagasu's appeal, Kwan's impressive new life: A figure skating Q&A [Updated]

November 23, 2009 | 12:16 pm
Czisnyfall2Questions first, answers second, now that the six regular-season Grand Prix figure skating events are over:

1.  Who would win an Ultimate Splat-Down between the two falling angels, reigning U.S. champion Alissa Czisny and 2007-08 European champion Carolina Kostner?

The Zamboni operator, for Czisny and Kostner would clean so much of the ice with their bottoms the resurfacing job would be much easier.

Czisny, no surprise, rendered meaningless her excellent short program at Skate Canada by falling twice  and getting credit for just three triple jumps (one given a negative grade of execution) in the free skate. She fell once and had credit for just three triples in her other GP free skate, at Cup of Russia.

Kostner fell once in the short program and once in the long program at Paris, once in the long program in China.  That picked up, as it where, from her dismal effort in the free skate at 2009 worlds, when Kostner fell once and did one clean triple jump.

The sad irony in this is both women are among the most elegant skaters in the world when they stay upright.

2.  Will the Canada factor at the Vancouver Olympics lead the judges to be as generous to the homies as they were at Skate Canada?

It will be a scandal if that happens.

[Updated 2:50 p.m. Nov. 23] Consider Joannie Rochette's scores in the free skate, when she slopped her way to victory with two triple jumps turned into doubles, two of the four triples she was credited with getting very negative execution grades and all three of her spins rated just level 2. [An earlier version of this sentence said: Consider Joannie Rochette's scores in the free skate, when she slopped her way to victory with two triple jumps turned into doubles, two of the four triples she was credited with getting very negative execution grades and all three of her four spins rated just level 2.] The judges dinged Rochette appropriately on the technical side, then propped her up with a component score higher than Yuna Kim's at Skate America. 

Yuna Kim could stand still for four minutes, and she still would deserve higher component scores than Rochette at her best.

Then there were the component scores for Patrick Chan.  The guy falls not once, not twice, but three times, yet winds up within reach (77.50) of the skaters with the best scores, Daisuke Takahashi of Japan (81) and Jeremy Abbott (79.40) of the United States  I don't care how good you look while on your skates, you are a mess with three falls.

3. Which current female skater is more entertaining, expressive or charismatic on the ice than 2008 U.S. champion Mirai Nagasu?

Only one. Yuna Kim.

That makes it more of a shame that Nagasu's jump technique is so flawed the judges hammer her with downgrades. Frank Carroll, who became her coach this season, needs more time to have a shot at fixing the problems.

4. Canadian figure skating officials wouldn't dare muzzle Patrick Chan, would they?

They didn't at 2009 worlds, when Chan called out 2007 world champion Brian Joubert as a complainer who made excuses.  And there thankfully has been no reaction to Chan's saying last week that reigning Olympic champion Evgeny Plushenko of Russia had been disrespectful in his chest-thumping, finger-wagging display after winning at the Grand Prix in Russia.

Chan's candor is a refreshing sound in the tongue-biting but behind-the-backstabbing world of figure skating. Any journalist who criticizes him for it would be a hypocrite, since we always hope athletes will say what they think instead of what they think is appropriate.

5. Is there anyone who doesn't feel bad watching Caroline Zhang struggle?

Not if you have an ounce of sympathy.

Zhang's expression when the free skate scores were posted at Skate Canada was simply pained. At 16, she is trying with little success to fulfill the enormous promise made evident four seasons ago, when she won the World Junior Championships. A few months later, she made the Grand Prix Final, finishing fourth with a total score (176.48) no U.S. woman has topped since.

At best, she has not improved in two years. At worst, she has gone backward as slowly and inexorably as the way she skates.

This season, Zhang wound up 16th in the Grand Prix standings (the top six make the final). Her total score at Skate Canada was 132.46.  She fell twice in the free skate. She looked lost.

6. Having three men in the Grand Prix Final from Dec. 3-6 is reason for U.S. fans to be optimistic about medals at the 2010 Olympics, right?

Yes and no.

The three U.S. men who made the final, reigning world champion Evan Lysacek, reigning Grand Prix Final champion Jeremy Abbott and 2008 world bronze medalist Johnny Weir, all have the ability to be in the medal hunt at Vancouver.

But it may be more significant to note who isn't in the Grand Prix Final because they skated only one series event (Plushenko, Chan) or none (two-time world champion Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland). All three plan to compete in the Olympics.

7.  Will anyone but die-hard skating fans watching the Olympics get excited about the strong U.S. ice dance teams, Tanith Belbin-Ben Agosto and Meryl Davis-Charlie White, after both made the GP Final by winning two events apiece?

Only if they can be tricked by NBC announcers' hype into thinking that ice dancing is a sport susceptible to either fair judging or judging at all.

There is everything to like about Belbin-Agosto and Davis-White as people and performers. And performers is the key thing, because that is all ice dance is about. It's all in the eye of the beholder -- great entertainment, archly camp at times, incredibly hard to do well.

And no more a sport than ballet.

8.  What are the chances Sasha Cohen makes it to nationals?

Fifty-fifty at best.

Sasha2 Cohen insisted in interviews last week she would be ready for the U.S. Championships in late January despite tendinitis that forced her out of both her scheduled Grand Prix events. She is undoubtedly learning that chronic injuries heal a lot more slowly even at only 25 years old than they did at 21, when she last competed. Harder to get the body to do what it did in this photo.

9.  Do I really feel threatened by Jenny Kirk's blog in the Los Angeles Times (one of the two papers where my blog appears), as critics on the Internet suggested after I went after her for intimating Cohen was not injured but afraid to compete?

Not at all.

In fact, I think most of Kirk's blog entries, both on The Times' website and their other home, True/Slant, are really good, especially since she is unafraid to express her opinions. I especially liked the one last year in which she discussed one of the sport's most serious issues, eating disorders, and the one Nov. 2 in which she gave her view on how the sport's new judging system is ruining the sport's appeal.

Where Kirk went wrong was in questioning the physical condition of another athlete when she had no direct knowledge of the truth and made no attempt to ask Cohen about it.

I know that is wrong because I did it myself.

Many years ago, I was one of the many baseball writers who intimated that enormously gifted Houston Astros' pitcher J.R. Richard was a slacker when his work habits deteriorated. Imagine how horribly chastened we all were were when Richard suffered a stroke and collapsed before an Astros game in 1980. Emergency surgery saved his life.

A simple rule applies: If an athlete says he or she is hurt, take it on face value, unless you have medical evidence to prove otherwise. (And if you do, then some doctor probably violated medicine's confidentiality rules.)

10. When I look back at Michelle Kwan's life (so far), what impresses me most?

It's not her nine U.S. titles and five world titles and two Olympic medals and decade as her sport's pre-eminent athlete.

It's her decision not to let that extraordinary skating career be the only thing that defines her.

When she kept putting off college in favor of trying to compete in a third Olympics three years ago, it seemed Kwan might be among the many athletes who have trouble moving beyond their sport. Instead, she has gone forward with a vengeance, getting a B.A. from the University of Denver and enrolling this fall in the master's degree program at the renowned Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Kwan is on the same path as 1956 Olympic champion Tenley Albright, a woman who went on to have an impressive professional career -- as a surgeon -- outside the skating world.

"I absolutely love Fletcher," Kwan told me in a text message on Monday night. "I have to say it's more challenging tackling a 35-page paper thank a triple salchow. :-)"

-- Philip Hersh

Photo at top right: Alissa Czisny about to hit the deck at Skate Canada. Credit: Tom Szczerbowski / US Presswire. Lower photo: Sasha Cohen. Credit: sashacohen.com

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