Skates In Cleveland, Eyes On Vancouver Olympics

The U.S. Figure Skating Championships are taking place this week in Cleveland. The women skate Thursday night in the short program competition and they'll skate again on Saturday in the long program. USA Today columnist Christine Brennan tells Renee Montagne that many are watching the competition with an eye toward the Winter Olympic Games next year in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The U.S. National Figure Skating Championships are taking place this week in Cleveland, Ohio, and many are watching the competition with an eye toward next year's Winter Olympics. Among them is Christine Brennan. She's a columnist for USA Today and a regular guest on this program. Good morning.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So, the women take to the ice tonight. Is there anyone who looks to be the next big star?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRENNAN: Really, right now, Renee, the answer...

MONTAGNE: You laugh.

BRENNAN: Yes - is no. And you remember the days we went, in the U.S., from Peggy Fleming to Janet Lynn to Dorothy Hamill. Later on Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan, Michelle Kwan. The lineage was there. This year, and looking ahead to Vancouver, the 2010 Games, as you mentioned, it is possible, even likely, that no U.S. woman will win a medal at those Winter Olympic Games. And if that happens, it would be the first time there's no U.S. female Olympic skating medalist since 1964, which was three years after a tragic plane crash, Renee, wiped out the entire U.S. national team. Peggy Fleming was 15 then and rising up, sixth place in '64, moving up to the gold in '68 and starting that great run of U.S. skaters. So, it's really stunning to see no one leaping to the fore, so to speak, as the Olympic Games are just a year away.

MONTAGNE: And what has happened to the American female skaters?

BRENNAN: I think there's a few things that have happened. The compulsory school figures, the painstaking tracings of figure eights - they got rid of those in 1990 for the sport worldwide, and now that means it's more gymnastics on ice, where the tiniest little bodies have the best chance to twist and fly through the air. But it also means that the little jumping beans rise to the surface, bubble to the top, and then fall back. And so, what we see is there's no staying power for these little kids. Often they're 14, 15, 16, they get injured, and therefore, you don't have that long reign like we saw with Michelle Kwan, which was amazing, ten years, at the most turbulent time in the history of this sport.

MONTAGNE: So, you know, expand on that a little bit. What does this mean for the future of American women in this sport, this big change?

BRENNAN: Unless figure skating decides to change something with its rules and maybe again put in something that makes - adds - looks to maturity and demands an older skater, I think we're going to see this be very much like gymnastics, where the kids come and go. And so, Mirai Nagasu is the reigning national champ. She was 14 last year. She's coming in to defend her title now at 15, and she's talking about being too old and being injured and feeling old and not having that same energetic feeling at the age of 14. Isn't that amazing...

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

BRENNAN: That at 15 - 15 is the new 30 in figure skating.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, is this something that you expect will go on for some time, based on rules and new style that people expect?

BRENNAN: You bring up a great point about rules. The judging system, the 6.0s - you remember that - the 5.9 and the 5.2 from the Russian judge. Well, now it's a point system, and it's kind of almost like pinball on ice. So, you just try to rack up points everywhere. Skating has really done itself a disservice, I think, by emphasizing the jumping. Therefore, you lose the artistry, you don't have the grace of a Peggy Fleming or a Dorothy Hamill, and you don't have those athletes that people get to know. And at a time when every sport's trying to get more attention and have economic, you know, success in this recession, you're finding figure skating having trouble because they don't have the superstars. Japan seems to be more where the action is. The U.S. is definitely in a downtime.

MONTAGNE: Christine, thanks very much.

BRENNAN: OK, Renee. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Christine Brennan is a columnist for USA Today. The U.S. National Figure Skating Championships are underway in Cleveland, Ohio.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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