Mark McClusky says for elite athletes today, pushing boundaries and breaking records is all about "the aggregation of marginal gains."
The U.S. National Figure Skating Championships take place in Boston this week. Winners will make the U.S. Olympic team.
Sports writer John Powers tells Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti to expect ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the reigning world champions, to make history as the first U.S. pair to take gold in the Sochi Olympics next month.
But Powers says U.S. figure skaters are falling short in pairs and men’s and women’s individual events.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
This is HERE AND NOW.
American skier Lindsey Vonn will not be competing in the Sochi Olympics in Russia next month. This morning, the 29-year-old, who's been called the best American skier in history, announced that the knee she injured last year at the world championships and then reinjured racing last month is just too unstable to compete.
Vonn is a four-time World Cup overall champion and two-time Olympic medalist. She says she's having surgery soon so that she'll be ready for the world championships in Vail next year.
Well, in figure skating, the U.S. national championships take place this week here in Boston. And this year's competition will give us a look at the team the U.S. will be sending to Sochi. John Powers of The Boston Globe will be watching all the action, and he joins us now. Hi there, John.
JOHN POWERS: How are you?
CHAKRABARTI: I'm doing well. So in a second, we're going to talk about how the U.S. team might fare overall in Sochi. But first, let's start with the national championships. Who are we watching on the men's side?
POWERS: Well, the interesting thing will be Max Aaron, who pretty much came out of nowhere to win the national title last year. He's a former hockey player who broke his back as a teenager and switched over to figure skating. He's interesting because he's had a very weak year and tends to skate like a hockey player. He doesn't mind falling down and getting back up. So what's interesting, this year, we only have two men spots in the Olympic team for the first time, really, since 1998.
So the other person to watch is Ross Miner from the Skating Club of Boston who's the only man to make the national podium three years in a row. So it'll probably come down to those two guys, I would say.
CHAKRABARTI: All right. So two guys on the men's side. But I understand that the top three women from the U.S. national championships will go to Sochi. So in that case, who are you watching on the ladies' side?
POWERS: The most interesting person is actually Wagner, who was the first woman to defend her title since Michelle Kwan. She's going for three in a row which no one has done since Michelle. The woman after her would probably be Gracie Gold, who was a newcomer last year, did very well at the world championships, lots of pizzazz. Great name, by the way, although as she said, it is a double-edged sword.
POWERS: Gold gets gold, Gold gets bronze.
CHAKRABARTI: We only wish her the very best. But before we get to the pairs and ice dancing teams, let's stick with the men and women. And how do you see them - whomever represents the U.S. - faring against international competition in Sochi?
POWERS: Well, it's funny. They've been losing ground for a while. And based on the results this year, it is likely that neither the men nor women will make the Olympic podium. And that hasn't happened for the first time since 1936, basically. They just - they aren't at the same technical level that the rest of the world has been. They have not made a world podium during this quadrennium. So unless something changes, it's going to be a medal-free Olympics, at least for the men and the women.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, is that in part due to the fact that there was that major scoring change that was put into figure skating back in 2002 after the Salt Lake City Olympics and technical mastery is really much more a part of the sport now than on-ice charisma once was?
POWERS: Yes. Exactly. I think the Americans were always part of the big whole package of figure skating. As a matter of act, Evan Lysacek, the American who won the gold medal in Vancouver, didn't do a quadruple jump and still won. That probably is not going to happen this time. I think the Americans have had trouble with a technical system that rewards quadruple jumps and for the ladies that rewards the triple axel and triple-triple combinations. They just haven't been able to do it at the same level, for example, that the Asian women have done or increasingly the Russian teenagers or, in the case of the men, the three-time world champion is Patrick Chan from Canada, and several of the Japanese guys just have been at a higher level throughout the last four years.
CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. So, John, I am curious, and I know this is - now, I guess, it's an old lament, but still a vital one that, you know, there are lots of people out there who were like quads, triple axels, it's all just muscle and technique. And whatever happened to the artistry in figure skating. I mean, is that era just gone now?
POWERS: Well, I think what is interesting is that the new scoring system actually does demand more balance. You do have to do spins. You do have to do much better footwork. But I think mostly what the complaint is, is that you can almost see the skaters counting the numbers. They're kind of counting the points. So there is a sameness to the programs. Everyone is doing this jump and this jump and this jump. And the only way really to set it apart is by the music and the costumes. So I think what you're not seeing is the variation in what is in the program because everyone feels as though that they have to keep up with everybody else.
CHAKRABARTI: On the other hand, in the 100-meter dash, everyone's got to run 100 meters. So...
POWERS: That's right. It's very different here. But at least it is a much fairer system, certainly. But it is mathematically complex. And I think one reason why the American public is not quite as interested is, you know, in addition to not having that many faces that they can root for is they don't understand the system. You really have to need - you almost have to have a degree in calculus.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, let's go to pair skating now because that, too, has become so technical and, I don't know, daredevil-esque sometimes. I can't watch, right, for fear of what's going to happen. But - so who are you watching in terms of the U.S. championships?
POWERS: Well, the interesting - I mean, this year, basically, you've got several new faces, people who haven't been together before or people who have some new partners. Again, the Boston skaters, Simon Shnapir and Marissa Castelli, are the defending national champions. They had a very good year last year. They will need to be very consistent here because there are several decent pairs.
I think mostly the issue with the Americans is they don't stay together very long, and I think that is something that's certainly, if you look at what the Russians have been able to do over the years, those pairs stay together four, five, six more years. And I think until the Americans do that, they're not going to make a whole lot of progress. They have not won an Olympic pairs medal since 1988 and haven't had a world medal since 2002.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, maybe we'll have a better shot in ice dancing because the reigning world champs, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, are Americans.
POWERS: That's right. As a matter of fact, the Americans should be favored to win the gold medal for the first time. They've been on the podium before. They have won a couple silvers. Clearly, now, they are setting the gold standard. The Olympic champions from Canada, who are Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, won in Vancouver on their home ice. Since then, the Americans have kind of go and past them a bit. They're actually trained together in Michigan. So they see each other every day. But this should be the year for the Americans to go gold. And Maia and Alex Shibutani, known as the Shib Sibs, have been on the world podium before. They may have a chance too.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, before anyone accuses us of figure skating nationalism by talking about the U.S. too much, I am curious what you think about the fact that these games are going to be held in Sochi and the Russians have long been very strong in figure skating. How much will it matter to them that they'll be in front of a home audience?
POWERS: I think that may well help them. What's interesting about the Russians is for the first time in ages, if not ever, they're only going to held one man qualify, and it may not be Yevgeny Plushenko, who has won the Olympics before. He is 31 now, has a bad back, didn't win his national championships. So it is quite possible, if not likely, that they won't make the podium. They do have four excellent young girls who may not be entirely ready for prime time. But I think what you'll see if the Russians win medals, it will be in pairs.
CHAKRABARTI: John Powers is with the Boston Globe. John, thank you so much.
POWERS: Thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: And, Robin, you know how we just talked about Meryl Davis and Charlie White. What we're listening to is music from their performance at last year's Skate America competition in Detroit. It is "Scheherazade," of course, by Nikoli Rimsky-Korsakov. Best of luck to all of them and all the other skaters this week in Boston.
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SCHEHERAZADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.