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Jennifer Kirk blog: U.S. women must hope a weak beginning turns into a strong ending

November 2, 2009 | 11:17 am

6a00d8341c630a53ef0120a6214ac6970b Jennifer Kirk, who won the 2000 world junior figure skating championship, finished third at the U.S. championships in 2004 and fourth in 2005, will write a weekly blog for The Times providing insights into the skating world during the months leading into the Vancouver Winter Olympics. Since retiring from figure skating in 2005, Kirk, 25, has been working on obtaining a college degree in broadcast journalism and has spent the last few months blogging about skating at Trueslant.com/jenniferkirk.

Americans Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu came to the weekend’s Cup of China event with high hopes. Facing a relatively weak field, both had a reasonable shot at medaling. 

It was shocking, then, when the ladies’ podium was void of an American flag. After dealing with their respective struggles in Beijing, Flatt and Nagasu were left with disappointment and empty hands heading home from their first Grand Prix event of this Olympic season.

What’s most significant about the weekend’s event isn’t that Flatt and Nagasu left a relatively mid-level Grand Prix event without a medal, but rather what it means for the larger hopes for American ladies’ figure skating.

Without a clear standout star among the American women, to some degree, the hopes of an Olympic medal rests in the hands of a relatively unpredictable group of young women who have yet to establish themselves as consistent threats for international medals. 

This week’s Cup of China served as a microcosm of this predicament. That said, it’s important to note that although the Cup of China was a disappointment, Flatt and Nagasu have the ability to rebound from the weekend’s setbacks and revive American ladies’ skating. But it will take some work.

Although the competition ended on a sour note, there were no early indications that the Cup of China was going to pose any difficulties for Nagasu.

Nagasu, who trains in El Segundo, skated with good speed and security in Friday‘s short program, winning the first phase of the competition. After a 2009 season that was marred with injuries and inconsistency, Nagasu came to Beijing looking to display an improved jump technique and more mature choreography.

She showed marked improvements in these areas in the short, getting through her jumps and receiving level 4’s on four of her elements. 

While Nagasu’s win in the first phase of the competition was promising and well-deserved, she learned an unfortunate lesson in her long program: If you’re going to jump, you have to make sure that jump is fully rotated. 

Although Nagasu’s jumps were strong in her short program, with better technique and height than we saw from her last season, Nagasu seemed to revert to old habits in the long. It appeared as if she tried to play it safe and, instead of getting the height and distance needed to fully complete the rotations, Nagasu muscled through her jumps, trying to assure she landed on her feet -- even if that meant her landings weren’t entirely backward. 

Nagasu received downgrades on five of her seven jumping passes in her long program, which completely killed her in the standings. Dropping from first to sixth in the long program, Nagasu was left to settle for fifth place overall and was more than twenty points behind the winner, Japan’s Akiko Suzuki, who had 176.66 points. Nagasu had 155.38, just behind Flatt’s 157.71.

The key for Nagasu is to keep herself from slipping into old habits under pressure. As a skater, it’s really easy to try to skate “safe” when you are leading after the short program, but the weekend taught Nagasu that safety isn’t going to win her international medals. 

The opening Grand Prix brings with it a ton of pressure and personal expectations for skaters. It’s understandable that Nagasu succumbed to this pressure in the long program. To some degree, all skaters have a moment where they drop the ball after an impressive short program, allowing mental lapses and safe skating to keep them off the podium. (Mine came at Skate America in 2002.) However, Nagasu can’t afford to make the mistakes we saw from her in Beijing in future events.

Like Nagasu’s shocking win in the short program, it was equally as alarming to see U.S. silver medalist Flatt struggle with her consistency and landings throughout the event. Flatt is known for being a clutch skater under pressure, but it seemed like she was off in China, leaving her usually secure jumping legs back at home. 

Although Flatt is a two-time national silver medalist, she lacks the speed on her spins and finesse to be competitive with the top international skaters. Because of her consistency, Flatt usually benefits from others’ mistakes, but, as we saw in the short program in China, when everyone skates well, there’s not a lot about Flatt’s skating that stands out. 

Flatt could fix this if she focused on polishing her stroking and improving her second mark. She needs to skate faster, work on the speed of her spins and her skating skills. While Flatt has a ton of potential, without the artistry and maturity of skaters such as Joannie Rochette or Kim Yu-Na, she’ll have a tough time breaking onto the podium at international events. Flatt has two weeks to get the timing back on her jumps and work on skating with more energy and command before her next event, Skate America.

While Flatt and Nagasu are surely frustrated by how their seasons began, both have the talent and opportunity to learn from the weekend’s competition. My advice to them would be to leave the Cup of China in the past. If they don’t, and they fail to spend the time fixing what’s been lacking from their skating over the last few seasons, American women’s figure skating will remain a rudderless ship still waiting for the next great star to emerge.

For Flatt, this means focusing on polishing up her skating, working on her flexibility and polish. And for Nagasu, it means working on the height and rotations of her jumps and her consistency under pressure.

The worst thing either could do right now would be to get too down about a rocky start to their Olympic seasons. The season’s far from over, and what they‘ll remember the most about this year isn‘t how it began, but how it ended.

-- Jennifer Kirk

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