Where Have All the Skaters Gone?

Nathan Chen of the US with last year’s iconic long program (not my picture)

I read an article this morning shared by my good friend, Barb, about the lack of interest in figure skating in the US these days. The article was written by Sarah Lawrence on http://www.vox.com and its well researched and thought out.

Its also sad.

I grew up figure skating in the 70s and 80s in Canada. Almost everyone skated as a kid in Canada, even if it was just to end up being a better hockey player.

I wanted to be like Katarina Witt or Debi Thomas or Caryn Kadavy. Back then many women didn’t attempt triple lutzes and, hey, when Tonya Harding went for her triple axels that was thought to be the peak of athleticism for women figure skaters!

Javier Fernandez of Spain a couple of years ago. He has since retired. (not my photo)

Men’s skating was dominated by Canada’s Brian Orser and his American rival, Brian Boitano. Who else can remember the whole family getting together to watch the Calgary Olympics men’s long program, famously dubbed the Battle of the Brians? (Boitano won with a bit of a garish program and Orser made a boo boo to claim silver and continue the curse of the Canadian men.)

Even that “curse” is a media term that fans of figure skating were aware of. Orser, Kurt Browing, Elvis Stoiko, Patrick Chan… all world champs carrying the weight of the mighty maple leaf on their shoulders entering an Olympic championship they were expected to win only to let the gold medal slip out from beneath their butts as they crashed to the ice. The look on Kurt’s face after his short program where he wiped out on a triple axel showed us all back home in our living rooms how much he felt like he let his entire country down.

Kurt Browning, pretty sure this was post wipe-out. Not my picture.

Moms, dads, grandparents and kids all knew the Who’s Who of figure skating because it was, at one time, the most popular televised Olympic sport. We didn’t just know the North American skaters, either, although before the Internet they were the ones we were most exposed to. Torvill and Dean of Great Britain were enormously popular ice dancers world-wide and who didn’t know about sexy Katarina Witt and her weirdly familiar coach, Jutta Muller? Russian pairs skaters dominated global podiums for decades until a couple of Canadian upstarts, Sale and Pelletier turned the skating world upside down in Salt Lake City.

And we all watched and collectively held our breath as Browning crashed to the ice entering a spin and Bryce Davison’s foot slashed his pretty little partner, Jessica Dube’s face on a side by side spin or when Patrice Lauzan dropped his wife, Marie-France Dubreil at the end of their routine and when Barbara Fusar-Poli looked like she wanted to rip the face off of her partner, Maurizio Margaglio- the stare down that lasted MINUTES- or that awful fall Bourne & Krantz had at the end of their Olympic long program or Carolina Kostner’s impression of a zamboni during a few televised routines that were absolute train wrecks and so difficult to watch yet impossible to turn off.

Caro took the skating world back a few years ago when she once again landed on a world podium (not my picture.)

Not only do we remember those catastrophes, we also remember watching Sale & Pelletier knock Love Story out of the park. We all sighed and smiled when Browning slowed to a stop and carefully, meaningfully paused to pull out a smoke in his Casablanca routine. We remember the incredible transformation of China’s Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo as their choreographer, Lori Nichol taught them to look at one another and connect while they skated.

Audiences around the world knew which pairs couples were real life couples and which ones weren’t and everyone loved it when they found out Sergio Grinkov loved feisty little Ekaterina Gordeeva. Then we all mourned years later when we heard on TV that while training for Stars on Ice, he had lifted his then-wife into the air, put her back down and promptly died from a heart attack.

Sasha Cohen gave Kwan a run for her money for a few years! (not my photo)

Sadly, there was drama to be had off-ice for some skaters and they were famous for that as well. Russia’s Okasana Baiul and American, Nicole Bobek both got themselves into some hot water for their off ice activities before (thankfully) turning both of their lives back around. And, please, let’s not spend any time at all on the whole Nancy-Tonya thing or Tonya Harding’s upbringing… although, the ladies short program at Lillehammer was a huge television spectacle thanks to the backstage antics of Harding’s husband and his moronic buddy.

Joannie Rochette, Vancouver Olympics (not my picture)

And, well. Watching Canada’s Joannie Rochette compete her short program in her home country for her last Olympics just days after her mother died in Vancouver… not sure there is anything left to be said about that.

Figure skating has always been known for its dramatic flair but that was a huge part of the attraction! Not only did skaters provide beauty and artistry with athleticism, but they also gave us heroes and villians and rivalries like no other sport (Sumners vs Witt; Thomas vs Witt; G&G vs Dmitriev and whoever he was partnered with that year; Lipinski vs Kwan; Cohen vs Kwan; Orser vs Boitano; Virtue & Moir vs Davis & White!)

Why has that all changed now? Why are skating clubs not drawing the numbers like they used to in North America and why doesn’t everyone I talk to know who Katelyn Osmond is? It shouldn’t matter that I live in the States now. World and Olympic competitors and/or champions used to be household names even if they didn’t stand on the top step of the podium (Phillipe Candeloro for the win there!)

Heck, we knew most of their coaches and how the coaches behaved (Tamara Moskvina… “I look them in the eyes and I hypnotize them.”) (Trust me. Its a thing.)

This is who Katelyn Osmond is… world champion!!!!! (not my picture)

It isn’t just the pandemic although I suspect that hasn’t helped. The 2020 World Championships in Montreal got cancelled a year ago, weeks and days before skaters and their teams were going to fly to Canada. The Grand Prix series in the fall was sort of, kind of, in a way, not really on although 2 events did get cancelled. The events that did happen had mostly competitors from the host country or foreign athletes who trained in that country and they didn’t get much TV time.

But viewership and interest has waned over several years, it feels like.

Could it be the judging overhaul as Sarah Lawrence suspects? I mean, we had to do something to fix the blatant nationalism that went along with judging deals and favoritism. And cheated jumps on a consistently terrible basis should never have been rewarded with Olympic gold medals (Sarah Hughes for the win… literally.)

Sarah Hughes

By Photo taken by Vesperholly – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Common.

(And I’m not slagging Sarah Hughes at all. She had some great content (those spirals!) and seems like a really sweet person but she would turn a full 1/4 turn after her blade hit the ice on her triples and I’m really, really glad we dock points for that now.)

The problem, though, as Sarah Lawrence also speculates, is that there are too many ways to earn and lose points on every single thing a skater does. And they are encouraged to do a bazillion things in contortionist-savvy positions that are generally more do-able before a female skater hits puberty.

Former US champion, Alysia Liu (Not my picture)

Like little Alysia Liu from the states. For the first time in years we had someone who could knock triple axels out of the park like the teensy tiny Russian skaters. She won the US Championships with these tricks and more in 2019 and 2020 but then (wait for it…) puberty hit and she has gone through a growth spurt. I did watch her at this year’s US Championships in Vegas (with no coaches by the skaters’ sides and an audience full of cardboard cut-outs, including the Geiko Gecko) and she looked like a beautiful woman version of her little girl self. Unfortunately with a changing body and lost training due to COVID, Alysa couldn’t find her way back to any step of the podium despite a gritty, fairly successful long program.

At the same event, Gracie Gold competed again and also is a different version of the national champion she was years ago. Gracie could be a cautionary tale and a reason why some parents are choosing to not put skates on their children’s feet when they are young. Gracie was a superstar befitting her mega-watt name and she put on jumping clinics on practice sessions (believe me… I watched her practices live in Salt Lake City for 2 years and she was amaze-balls) before her own fall from, er, grace.

Eating disorders, anxiety, self doubt- these things crept in and her physical and mental health and some concerned grown ups in her life took her to an in-patient facility where she battled her demons in private.

my hubby’s cell phone cover!

Make no mistake- I am very clear that puberty and spandex are two things that don’t go together like PB&J and its not just the modern skaters who face these same issues. I knew skaters who had to quit the sport and even one who died from anorexia back in the 80s. But with the Internet now are families choosing to skip skating and are dropping their kids off at a soccer field instead? Are swimming and gymnastics going through the same thing?

I don’t have the answers but I would absolutely love for figure skating to be huge again. I would love to watch traveling ice shows with professional athletes like Kurt, Scott Hamilton, Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan – Stars on Ice and Champions on Ice. They were spectacular sparkle-fests with back flips and heartfelt, artistic routines (omg, Nicole Bobek… Sacrifice… my inspiration to skate to the same song myself in the ’90s!) Obviously we aren’t watching stadium events right now but these shows and Ice Capades all died off years before the pandemic.

Mirah Nigasu of the US (obviously not my picture)

I admire the jumping beans of today and how much they cram into their programs but I miss when the Women’s event was a women’s event. I like that skaters can skate to music with lyrics now but I miss the pauses, the long glides, the choreographed moments where so much of the story was told by a skater stopping, lifting her hands and staring off behind her back… or something like that. Anything like that. I’d even take Bogart and the smoke again (even though its not the right message!!!)

I hope if you used to watch figure skating that you still choose to seek it out. I am a member of goldenskate.com and that is a fun forum for fans to visit and share or discuss skaters of today as well as skaters of yesteryear. International Figure Skating is also a good magazine that follows the sport around the world even while many athletes aren’t 100% sure we are, indeed, having World’s in March (so far it looks good…)

For now, though, its time to head out into a different frosty wonderland as I’ve just got another dump of snow and that stuff doesn’t move itself from here to there. Stay safe, everyone. Get your vaccines!

Big Red on Friday morning. Its been that type of weekend.
And that kind of a weekend.
I love this truck.

5 thoughts on “Where Have All the Skaters Gone?

  1. Mike Marshall

    Great recap of the greats! Candace and I love to watch figure skating. Covid has certainly not helped the sport. I suspect now that parents are busy stuffing their daughters into bikinis for Beach Volleyball. Follow the money. πŸ™‚

    • Isn’t that the truth? Figure skating doesn’t provide a whole lot of financial windfall although the greats of the 80s did alright. Especially when they could compete for coin in pro competitions! Thanks, Mike. Always appreciate your thoughts!

      • Mike Marshall

        πŸ‘ I am currently imagining Dr Tanya Fyfe in spandex doing a Triple Axel on my TV screen. It’s a great video clip in my mind. Thanks!

      • Mike Marshall

        I have seen some of your videos skating, but not the one with Sacrifice. Share a link when you have a moment. Now I’m thinking next time we’re able to do a Lions skate party at the Lions Park pond, we invite you as a celebrity guest. πŸ™‚

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