The Circular Worth of a Body of Work

by Jacquelyn Thayer

We’ve written previously on the systemic circularity of funding in figure skating: money can help breed success; success yields the money that may be denied to those athletes who need it most.

It is certainly a dollhouse miniature of the pitfalls that can make climbing the ladder of success in the real world much more challenging for young adults born into less fortune than others. And in a smaller, less globally meaningful way, it has its analogy in the form of skating’s other currency: scores and ranking.

For any championship event, a federation will naturally want to send its perceived strongest and best competitors. This is most important with a single available spot, and the importance of an entrant’s scoring ability diminishes with a nation’s available spots — if you can send, say, three ice dance teams or men, it matters far less what that #3 entry can do if the top two can be trusted to compete well enough to accomplish your desired goals, be they a medal run or maximum spots for the following year’s championship.

Russia and Japan, with their remarkable depth, pretty consistently follow a long-view approach to event assignment that gives strong consideration to national medalists while also evaluating skaters by a set of additional event criteria — primarily for Japan, a recent body of work at events like the Grand Prix series and previous World Championships, and for Russia, results at the European Championships that follow their Nationals. Olympic and world champions on the comeback trail, or coming off an unusually dire Nationals, will also be given their additional due, a standard and highly reasonable approach taken by any federation.

A number of smaller skating federations, who may seek a choice among only a handful of eligible and reasonably equal competitors, have implemented multi-event points systems. Skaters are given equivalent international competition opportunities, and the ultimate winner of this battle is determined by the cumulative outcome of those equivalent events. Importantly, such a system is not directly impacted by one skater’s having more opportunities, at more generous or more prestigious events, than another. The goal is to level the playing field across a selected set of competitions.

The U.S. and Canada have been rather uniquely North American in their traditional assignment ethos: in countries that possess a level of talent equal to the other major feds, but far more variable depth, it has been easy enough to conventionally allow the national championships to determine picks for both Olympic Games and World Championships. There is a strategic concern to ensure a best possible team for Worlds, where a set of placements determines how many entries the nation can send the next year, and it is here, and for this reason, that orderly podium placements have on more than one occasion been disregarded. But the Olympics, where skaters skate fundamentally for themselves, should present no such overarching concern. The popular view of nomination to the Games is one of reward for an athlete’s effort as much as glory for his or her nation; competition at the national championships during which Olympic teams are finalized is seen as the equalizing moment, the event where a skater’s best effort, a medaling effort, is akin to pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

But it wasn’t so simple in 2014, when a fourth-place Ashley Wagner made a U.S. team over bronze medalist Mirai Nagasu.1 The explanation then was one used for those higher-ranked world medalists who’d received medical byes in prior years: body of work. Indeed, Wagner, though an unlikely bet for the Sochi individual podium, had at least been in the mix, medaling at the Grand Prix Final just a few weeks before those Nationals over skaters like soon-to-be Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova. Nagasu had faltered badly in the years since her own previous national and international achievements, and was at that time working without a full-time coach; the competition was a personal triumph, but not, perhaps, such an achievement as to merit consideration over a favorite with demonstrated successes, one who provided additional stability to a young team. And, after all, third and fourth are not such distant placements; Nagasu’s total score was 8 points better than Wagner’s, but the two had nearly tied in the short program. Sure, the decision prompted controversy among a general Olympic year audience less familiar with the skaters’ records, and Wagner struggled individually in Sochi, but Nagasu, four years on, has improved and well earned a spot on the 2018 team; Wagner, fourth again nationally in 2018 with too little recent success to outright support another promotion, can still forever claim Olympian status.

Before that time, a U.S. national champion, provided eligibility by age, citizenship and/or any other event requirement, was guaranteed an assignment to the Olympics or Worlds, regardless of all extenuating circumstances, and such a principle has de facto stood. But as of the 2013-14 season, a body of work criteria overriding national champ status was formally set into play for Olympic selection and as of 2016-17, officially, for World Championships as well. The tiered categories made official in 2016 were then reaffirmed for this year’s Olympic selection. National championship results, the 2017 Grand Prix Final and 2017 Worlds held Tier 1 status; secondary were the 2017 Grand Prix series and Four Continents Championships, and last, 2017 Challenger events and the later events of the 2016-17 season. Of diminished necessity here are actual world medals, or the possibility of their attainment; what matters more is a comparison of simple international results, and the opportunity to achieve those results, across the field. Though it’s been revealed that concern was given to scores achieved internationally, the actual weight given to each tier has not been made public, and it is possible such a mathematical formula does not exist, allowing for more leeway among the U.S. federation’s anonymous international selection committee. Coach Mark Mitchell, though a far from impartial source, suggested to USA Today that competitors themselves may not have been informed of the degree of importance, and of the truly broad definition of a comprehensive body of work, over a stellar Nationals performance.

Body of work has meant different things for different disciplines. For ice dance and pairs this year, it was essentially irrelevant; the U.S.’s strongest pair also captured the national title, with the runners-up all perfectly suitable for alternate consideration, while in dance, all three medaling teams are already among the world’s most successful dancers. In ladies, no single woman has a clear-cut advantage over another, and none had a terribly substantial body of work in year 2017; the overall strongest four finished top four, and there was limited reason to displace one skater for another per Olympic considerations.

Men’s presented the most muddled field — one man with good odds to capture a Pyeongchang medal, three others who picked up some 2017 Grand Prix medals in relatively diluted fields, two of whom qualified for a trip to the Grand Prix Final (where they finished fifth and sixth in fields of six), and, in the remaining mix for top 10, an array of other international competitors whose years-to-date had been middling. The world contender did his job at Nationals. The Grand Prix Finalists struggled in the long program, neither making the top three. One young 2017 national medalist squeaked out a bronze. And silver went to a veteran who had nabbed three straight national medals from 2011 through 2013, but competed at only three international events in year 2017; his personal best total score was set in fall 2015, and the Nationals performance was a comeback of the largest scale.

In the end, the decision was apparently overwhelmingly simple for the selection committee: send, of course, the champion; send the bronze medalist, who has a 2017 World Junior title to his name; and send the fourth-place finisher, the two-time 2017 Grand Prix medalist with a Grand Prix Final slot. First alternate followed this same pattern: the sixth-place national finisher, also a Grand Prix Finalist who skated well at 2017 Worlds, was named for this mostly honorary position ahead of the national silver medalist. And so too with the Four Continents Championships, where, in Olympic years, the U.S. traditionally sends the runners-up who missed Olympic berths: the fifth-place man who had excellent skates at both 2017 and 2018 Nationals was bypassed for the ninth-place man who won a Grand Prix medal in the fall.

Recall again that while the World Championships are crucial to determining opportunities for skaters at the next year’s event, the same cannot be said of the Olympics or of Four Continents; at best, consideration since 2014 is given to strategy for the Winter Olympics’ new team-based skating event, where national representatives battle it out against one another for ranked, rather than traditionally scored, positions to determine a winning country.

A decision to favor not skaters with any reasonably strong chance at a world-level medal, or even necessarily a top five position, but those whose personal best scores are dozens of points off those of the top competitors, has proven unsurprisingly controversial. If body of work was once understood to save the best and brightest, it now seems more in place to protect those who are more decent, more adequately consistent, than others. It is a system, and it may even share similarities with those of Russia and Japan, but it is not a system under which the majority of North American athletes or coaches have trained their mentalities.

But the more uncomfortable fact of this system, however valid it may prove for an Olympic outcome, is what it means in the longer term for individual opportunity. We can assume first off that skaters who must qualify to Nationals via regional and sectional events are already out under these requirements. So let us posit a higher-status skater who struggles with health issues, or one with limited resources who must devote extra energy and hours to a paying job. Maybe a very talented skater with some early international success is hit by the injury bug at the worst moment, derailing some key events and hurting a still-developing reputation among officials and federation members. These skaters still must establish an international presence just to obtain a Grand Prix assignment — must have achieved a high season’s best score at a major international already, must have competed enough to stay afloat in world standings, or must gain a host country’s confidence sufficient to pick up a spot at that event. (This is, naturally, an advantage that skaters in the U.S., Canada, China, Japan, Russia and France have over those from non-host nations, although the strategy underlying events can also mean that perceived weaker skaters may be invited as a means of boosting the odds for host nation skaters. And it works both ways; a strong skater from a smaller federation may be bypassed completely if just on the cusp of meeting ranking criteria, as happened to Australian World Junior Champion pair Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya and Harley Windsor in 2017.)

For those skaters lucky enough to nab one of the 12 (singles), 10 (dance) or 8 (pairs) spots at any of the six events, you then must also hope for a favorable field, one not overly dominated by top contenders, one in which you won’t enter as an assumed second or third tier skater behind other representatives of your same country. And you must, of course, find yourself in good condition at that event — no last-minute foodborne illness outbreaks, no shoulder injuries, no equipment malfunctions. And hope, too, for a fair technical panel, not one given to overscrutiny of every step or every jump, scrutiny perhaps inversely proportionate to status. And hope most of all for performances that defy any external odds. Skate clean, make your levels, and still maintain your momentum towards the next big event.

If a good skater lacks the required history or federation interest to pick up a Grand Prix, then they may find themselves tackling one, two or three events on the slightly less prestigious Challenger Series. Happily, these scores will count towards a Season’s Best, a help in future assignments; less happily, scores at these events tend to bear little resemblance to those at the major competitions. You may outdo any personal best by 20 points; you may score by your own standard, and then find that your compatriots at another Challenger were greeted by a far more generous panel. They have now surpassed you on the ISU’s ranking lists by many spots.

Regardless of route, you enter Nationals with some fall events under your belt. You have not seen world-beating results yourself. You have skated with a wonky knee, had a bad reaction to jet lag or maybe a tough fall in warm-up that shook you up before the main event. Your event was riddled with some of the top competitors in your discipline, along with a couple of their training mates who seemed to earn a peculiar bonus-by-proxy. Whatever it was, your fall could have been worse, but it wasn’t the best it could have been, and you failed to show the best that you and others know you possess — and not for any lack of trying. You knew the signs when the things you could still rely on — skating skills, difficult transitions — ranked below those of weaker skaters with emptier content but more consistently clean skates.

(Because, of course, this is not even to address the elephant in the room: political favor, which may be attached to a skater’s competitive narrative, a skater’s coach, a skater’s packaging, a skater’s agent, or any other thing that is not directly related to technical achievement on the day. It is too inconsistent to apply as an additional rubric here, but it is a reality to anyone who follows the sport with sufficient attention, and may certainly present a further disadvantage.)

But you’re here, and finally feeling the strongest you have in a long while. It’s not a bad time — traditional, after all, to aim to improve performance as accords with the most important events. Let your programs and conditioning build early on, be at top strength across the board when the results matter most. It’s a matter of health and practicality, not a casual disregard for those handful of fall opportunities you’ve been granted.

And you do it. And the judges, and the tech panel, let you do it. You hit it all and the panel agrees. Even those components hold up well, comparatively — nobody wants to stint much when a skater is truly maximizing their ability. A glorious, overdue moment. It’s enough for you to seize the day ahead of those who’ve had it easier until now; everyone loves an underdog, even if, in reality, your raw talent and technical prowess may actually surpass theirs.

In another time, in the standard circumstances, with the available spots, this new hardware around your neck will convert easily to a plane ticket and a place in the start orders for that pending global championship. Yours is the tale of perseverance. Get up. No matter what. Go on as you meant to begin, and never ever ever give up.

That is not the story now, you’ve learned.

You did not do when it mattered, and this week’s achievement was illusory — a fluke more than any pieces finally falling into place. The mantle of Olympian was never meant for any but a predestined handful; they already knew, and you should have, too. Rest easy; should you continue to play, you’re surely in line for some other international in the months to come. Maybe that one will change the game.

For the majority of skaters, earning admission to Nationals is itself the prize. This is not about those skaters, who can indeed take pride in every stride made. It is the process of entry into the international elite — the point at which an athlete may begin to seek a return on financial investment, sponsorship opportunities, and the kind of achievement actually recognizable to those outside the skating bubble — that is nearly its own barrier. A good enough performance at a Nationals or a small club-hosted event in the summer will probably help to secure a good enough international — probably a minor Senior B or Challenger (but careful — spots by nation are limited there, and first priority will go to those Grand Prix competitors who hope to test the waters before their more meaningful events). It is little capital compared to what many others already have and will further build on, and your best shot at growing that wealth into a meaningful nest egg is to compete in an unstable field, as, perhaps, a youthful and relatively inexperienced Bradie Tennell found after delivering the most technically consistent set of performances for any U.S. lady entering 2018.

We know already that in life, success comes most easily to those starting on the right foot. Life, as many love to repeat, is not fair. Sport differs from reality in one significant degree: no one is really born into their future status. Some athletes will have an easier early path than others, but there is a great degree of work and sacrifice necessary for any to come within reach of the top rungs. It is that distinction between “almost ran” and “arrived” that is most vulnerable to a heightened emphasis on provable achievement. If the old axiom tells us scores across differently-judged competitions cannot be compared against one another, to what end does it begin to prove reasonable to compare results from distinct competitions? If a federation body is itself largely responsible for a skater’s shot at the international circuit, what responsibility does it bear for setting into play the very body of work it will use as a criteria?

In 2017, pair Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran captured national silver after a couple of rocky Grand Prix outings earlier in the season. For their efforts, they received no subsequent assignments; successful pair Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, absent from that Nationals for health reasons, received an understandable medical bye to join 2017 champs Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier at Four Continents and Worlds. Though three spots were up for grabs at the first event, the federation chose instead to send bronze medalists Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, a new pair with just three Challenger events under their belts; they also received the first alternate nod for Worlds over the silver medalists. Each of the two pairs had won bronze at a Challenger. It should perhaps be noted that unlike Cain and LeDuc, however, Castelli and Tran were known to be ineligible for this year’s Olympic competition due to Tran’s Canadian citizenship.

To pretend that a quantifiable body of work is an objective decision driver, and immune to the problems of recognizing momentum, maximum ability, or the circumstances in play at a competition one month later, is to reduce an individually-focused sport to the sort of analytics that frequently fail to properly handicap a college football team’s success. There is strategy to sussing out whether a skater with a proven track record, and the proven capacity for high marks, will be more useful than another to the federation in earning future World Championship opportunities. But to apply this weighted system to events like the Olympics and Four Continents, where non-podium placements should — team event be damned — have no bearing on anyone’s real glory but the athlete’s, is to confirm that assignments are a currency for imagined potential or recompense for a long career.

CORRECTION: The article originally misstated the timeline during which body of work criteria was introduced to the Olympic selection process. We regret the error.

  1. The U.S. Championships classify fourth place as its own podium position, pewter. For simplification, that status, which is not utilized by other national championships or at any international event, is dismissed here.