Will the top three U.S. women skaters still be there in 2014?
A couple hours after the women's final Saturday at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, I was in a group of longtime figure skating writers discussing what we might expect between now and the next Olympics, and one of my colleagues said, "I don't think any of the top three will be in Sochi."
My first reaction was that it sounded ridiculous that neither Alissa Czisny nor Rachael Flatt nor Mirai Nagasu would make the 2014 Olympic team.
The longer we talked, though, the less implausible it seemed.
First of all, none of the three medalists at nationals in the year after the 2006 Olympics -- Kimmie Meissner, Emily Hughes and Czisny -- made it to Vancouver in 2010. Meissner got injured, and both Hughes (ninth) and Czisny (10th) were also-rans at last year's nationals, when the Olympic team was selected.
Nagasu, still a junior-level skater in 2007, and Flatt, who debuted at senior nationals that year but was a junior internationally, made the 2010 Olympics, finishing fourth and seventh, then seventh and ninth, respectively, at worlds.
Beginning in 2006, Czisny's career arc at nationals looks like a fifth-grader's drawing of a mountain range: seventh to third to ninth to first to 10th to first.
Although winning the Grand Prix Final and the U.S. Championships back-to-back speaks to a consistency that Czisny, 23, previously has lacked, her results at the upcoming worlds and at next year's nationals will help demonstrate whether she can avoid plunging into another valley.
The most encouraging sign about Czisny's excellent performance Saturday night was how she reacted to a bobble on a triple-loop jump midway through her program. In the past, that usually would have led her to come apart. This time, she stayed upright on the flawed loop and came back to toss off two triple jumps and a double axel after that.
Flatt's career arc has been essentially downward since she won the 2010 U.S. title. Judges hammered her presentation at last year's Olympics and worlds, and her last-place performance at last month's Grand Prix Final was statistically the worst in the seven years that event has been scored with the Code of Points.
She skated respectably at this year's nationals, especially in the short program, but Flatt was smart enough not to get excited over a long program good enough to put her on the world team only because a nervous, uninspired Nagasu botched two easy elements at the end of her program.
The air went out of Flatt's free skate after she got a negative grade on the jump combination that opened the program and doubled the next jump, a planned triple lutz.
"I did struggle," Flatt said. "It was a bit of a rough skate."
Truth be told, Flatt, 18, gives the impression of someone struggling with the idea of continuing to compete.
She deferred entry to Stanford for a year, a sensible idea because it gave her a season to assess her place in the sport when her life would not be split between school and skating. That dichotomy will come back into play if Flatt does matriculate at Stanford as planned in the fall, and she also will face a coaching issue, since her current coach, Tom Zakrajsek, is in Colorado Springs.
Nagasu's case is the most perplexing.
Her coach, Frank Carroll, told me Sunday that he was infuriated by the way Nagasu appeared to give up at the end of her program and by her posture as she waited on the ice for the scores of the previous skater. He felt she was all but mooning the audience (without exposing any flesh, of course) by bending over repeatedly in the middle of the rink to tie her skates.
Her technical marks were ninth best in the field.
"She needs an awakening," Carroll said. "Maybe this is the slap that will do it."
Nagasu's career, like Czisny's, has been a bit of a roller coaster.
She won nationals as a 14-year-old in 2008, dropped to fifth in an injury-plagued 2009, came back to finish second (and was the best U.S. skater in the Olympics and at worlds) in 2010, then missed the world team after finishing third Saturday.
That Nagasu was off the ice with a stress fracture for two months last summer affected her preparation. But Carroll, who coached Evan Lysacek to the 2010 Olympic gold, said the time off also should have given her needed rest after a whirlwind 2010 season.
"She had such a great season it was hard to get her juices going again," Carroll said. "And not having Evan in the rink beside her every day to kick her butt and tell her when she was ridiculous also was a factor.
"She has been a bit all over the place. Sometimes I don't understand where she is coming from. I feel she trained better than what I got [Saturday], but she didn't get her act together until about three weeks ago. That's not really long enough."
Nagasu was extremely disappointed to miss the world meet in Tokyo, since she has a lot of family still in Japan.
"I let my nerves get the best of me," Nagasu said. "[But] it's not like my career is over."
For all three of Saturday's medalists, the results at next month's worlds could have significant effect on their careers. Czisny's and Flatt's finishes have to add up to 13 or less for the U.S. to regain the third world spot it lost after 2008.
A third spot might be the opening a younger skater needs to accelerate her path to the 2014 Olympics. Might that be Agnes Zawadzki, 16, who finished fourth Saturday night in her senior debut; Christina Gao, 16, fifth for the second year in a row; or Courtney Hicks, 15, who was dazzling in winning the junior title?
Or all three?
-- Philip Hersh in Greensboro, N.C.
Photo: From left, Rachael Flatt (silver), Alissa Czisny (gold) and Mirai Nagasu on the medal stand after the women's final Saturday at the U.S. Championships. Credit: Chris Keane/Reuters