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Mirai Nagasu not on par with Rachel Flatt? Huh?

May 10, 2010 |  1:46 pm

I am trying to figure out how U.S. Figure Skating decided Mirai Nagasu does not belong on the same level as Rachael Flatt in the "team envelopes" for the 2010-11 season that USFS announced Friday.

That means Nagasu will get lower funding than Flatt.

According to U.S. Figure Skating, the criteria for tier placement are "primarily determined by the athlete's performance in international and U.S. Figure Skating competitions during the previous season.''

Flatt, 17, the U.S. champion, is Tier One.  Nagasu, who finished second at nationals, went on to beat Flatt at both the Olympics (fourth to Flatt's seventh) and worlds (seventh to ninth), but she is Tier Two.

Flatt did better on the Grand Prix circuit, even if she failed to make the final, but those results are inconsequential, anyway, compared to Olympics or worlds.

But U.S. Figure Skating has this illogical standard for determining Tier One:

A U.S. championship combined with a top-10 finish at Olympics puts a skater in Tier One.  (So do medals at Olympics or worlds or a top-three standing in the world rankings at the end of the season, but neither Flatt nor Nagasu meets any of those criteria.)

So Flatt, whose season went downhill after nationals, somehow is ranked higher than Nagasu.
Flatt, an exceptional student, has chosen Stanford from a laundry list of acceptances at elite universities but will defer matriculation for a year to see what would happen to her skating career by devoting full time to the sport.

Should Flatt decide to continue competing once she gets to Stanford, she will almost certainly have to find a new coach, since her current coach, Tom Zakrajsek, is based in Colorado Springs.  Even in this age of infinite forms of communication, coaching a skater by e-mail, Twitter, video and the like does not seem workable.

Here's some unsolicited advice for Flatt:

If your international results aren't better next season than they were in 2010, think long and hard about what you might gain and what you may lose by continuing.  You might gain the opportunity to skate in another Olympics.  You may lose the opportunity to experience the full richness of life at Stanford because you will have to train off campus (fighting area traffic) and travel far to compete.  While Stanford intercollegiate athletes also travel, they have a university support system to make all that easier.

Flatt has spoken with Dr. Debi Thomas, now an orthopedic surgeon, who combined skating and Stanford.  Thomas took a leave from Stanford after two years to train for the 1988 Olympics, where Thomas won the bronze medal.  She is one of the few skaters in the past 25 years to have significant success in both school and the sport, but Thomas had stopped competing before her final three years at Stanford, and it took six years to get her degree in general engineering.

Two-time Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan tried UCLA and skating during the 2001 season, then left school to prepare for the 2002 Olympics.  She became a full-time student at Denver University after her final Olympic effort in 2006 ended in an injury withdrawal two days after the Opening Ceremony.  Kwan, like Thomas, has gone on to serious academic pursuits as a master's student at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts.

Paul Wylie, the 1992 Olympic silver medalist, fulfilled his potential as a skater only after he graduated from Harvard after five years of college in 1991.  At the 1991 worlds, Wylie had finished 11th after barely qualifying for the free skate.

This is what Wylie told me several years ago about the difficulties of being at an elite university and trying to be an elite skater:

"It was no mystery to me that I always had a good nationals and a lousy worlds," Wylie said.  "Nationals came the first week of the semester.  Worlds was smack in the middle of midterms.

"The hardest part was no one understood what was going on, and I was being downgraded (in skating) because I lacked 'devotion.'  I knew school would remain with me through thick and thin, and skating was fickle.

"Until I skated the short program at the 1992 Olympics [when he was a surprising third], I was considered a 'pathetic figure,' mostly because of decisions I made to pursue a college education.  Most skaters and some judges and members of the press criticized my 'misallocation' of time."

Flatt, like Thomas, wants to study engineering at Stanford.  To her, I would offer the same opinion I did to Emily Hughes, first in 2008, then 2009, when injuries were wrecking her skating career: take it as a sign that it was a good time to say farewell to the sport and completely enjoy her time in Cambridge.  (Hughes obviously did not agree; she took this year off from Harvard for a quixotic attempt at making the 2010 Olympics and was a distant ninth at the U.S. Championships.)

For Flatt, that sign would be a failure to improve significantly at worlds, in which her best finish is a fifth two years ago.   She already has had a career as sparkling as the sequins on her dresses: U.S. champion, world junior champion, two-time U.S. runner-up, Olympic team, two senior world teams.

No U.S. woman has been more successful the past four years than Flatt.  She clearly belongs in the nation's top tier.

So does Mirai Nagasu. Only U.S. Figure Skating would have rules too myopic to see that.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: Rachael Flatt performing her Olympic short program.  Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune