Teens on Ice at U.S. Skating Competition
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
U.S. figure skating championships are getting under way in St. Paul, Minnesota today. The championships are the most important annual event in one of the most popular Olympic sports.
And we're going to learn this morning from USA Today columnist and author, Christine Brennan, regular guest to this program.
Ms. CHRISTINE BRENNAN (Columnist, USA Today; Author): Well, good to see you.
INSKEEP: Is there a young skater who is going to burst out of this, emerge?
Ms. BRENNAN: There could be one. There could be two. And this really all about looking ahead to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
Ms. BRENNAN: So this is the breakout time. And there are two young ladies to watch: Caroline Zhang, 14 years old, and Mirai Nagasu, also 14. Now, you're saying 14, what are...
INSKEEP: Yeah, yeah.
Ms. BRENNAN: ...they doing in women's figure skating? The reality is being 14 now means, of course, you'll be 16 in two years at the Olympics - perfect age to potentially win a medal. Both Zhang and Nagasu, they're really building now to 2010.
INSKEEP: What makes the difference between a 14-year-old who can handle the pressure of the competition and the pressure of scrutiny from people like us, and a 14-year-old who can't?
Ms. BRENNAN: Oh, well, everything. I mean, the bottom line is you think about Michelle Kwan when she was 14. Now that was way back in 1995, but she can handle it. Tara Lipinski could handle it. And what you see when they do well, they won Olympic gold medals. Three of the last four women's Olympic gold medalists have been either 15 or 16. That's the importance of being 14 two years before the games. And that's why the U.S. looks pretty good in this case.
INSKEEP: And try to build up. But as you're trying to cover this, as you're trying to pick a winner, do you look at the skater? Do you look at who surrounds the skater, who coaches the skater, the parents of the skater? What matters most?
Ms. BRENNAN: Great question. And you really look at if they can handle the pressure. I mean, the reality is it's two and a half minutes for the short program, four minutes for the long program. They're out there by themselves. This isn't football, where you've got 10 other teammates. So you're out there, the music starts, you're creating the action. It is intense pressure. And someone like Caroline Zhang or Nagasu - both of these little kids have competed on the world stage. They've been first or second at the world junior level, which is fantastic at this stage. So it is. It is about being able to handle that pressure, land the jumps, and also, of course, have a body that you can actually bend backwards.
Ms. BRENNAN: I mean, the stuff that they're doing, we'd be in traction. But...
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: Well, I would be. Perhaps not you.
Ms. BRENNAN: Well, I don't know about that.
INSKEEP: So is this a sport in search of a star right now?
Ms. BRENNAN: Oh, it absolutely is. I mentioned Michelle Kwan a few moments ago. I mean, she was, of course, at the time of the game for almost a decade. Everything in sports these days, Steve, is about the personality. We're in a cult of personality face of sports: Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady.
Every sport has a name or a big face. Skating is really in trouble because it doesn't have that. And Kwan, with her dominance - now she's gone. She's unofficially retired, but she might as well be. And the sports was lacking and really, really searching, I think, for another year to two until these gung kids build the bigger names, or Kimmie Meissner - you know, she's all of 18 years old now, but the reality is she also is almost too old going into 2010. So the next young one is what we're looking for.
INSKEEP: Does the absence of stars point to some failure of management in the sport?
Ms. BRENNAN: Well, I think the sport is in trouble. I mean, every sport is cyclical. Tennis was up, tennis was down. Golf- up, down. I do think this about skating, is that they have the brand, the 6.0. You could throw things at the television set as you're watching, you know, Michelle Kwan gets a 5.8 from the U.S. judge, and then a 5.2 from the Russian judge and you're furious and you're mad you're throwing things at the TV.
They had reality TV before there was reality TV. And then they threw it away with this point system that's supposed to be fair, but in reality is not. And it's indecipherable, frankly, Steve, for the viewers. So, I think, that's really hurt the sport as much as anything, and they should try to get back to their brand, that magical 6.0.
INSKEEP: Christine Brennan is our star sportswriter.
Thanks very much.
Ms. BRENNAN: Thank you, Steve.