How do you solve a problem like the third US Ladies Olympic spot?

Until 2014, it was an unspoken rule that the top finishers would go to the Olympics.  But Ashley Wagner, finished 4th at nationals after a great Grand Prix season, and was chosen to go to the Olympics over Mirai Nagasu who finished 3rd.

I think there is no doubt that Bradie Tennell and Mirai Nagasu are going to the Olympics, but it is likely that the committee will be debating between Karen Chen and Ashley Wagner.  I honestly won’t be shocked either way, as I see the case for either skater.  There is no doubt that both ladies have worked incredibly hard, and whoever is chosen, absolutely deserves to go and live their Olympic dream.

About 2.5 points separated the skaters, with Chen coming out ahead in the short program while Wagner finished ahead in the free skate.  If you look long term, Wagner is the only US lady to win a World medal and has multiple Grand Prix medals including one this season (only she and Tennell won Grand Prix medals this year).  Chen has never won a medal at a Grand Prix event and her best finish at Worlds was 4th last season.

However, Chen has beat Wagner at their last three head to head events, defeating her at the last two US Championships and last season’s World Championships.  Wagner also withdrew in the middle of her free program at Skate America and while she cited an injury, her motivation for withdrawing and the timing was considered suspect by many.

Chen had three under-rotation calls, a downgrade, and an edge call in the free skate but she was also fighting through illness.  Wagner had a relatively clean program but did single a salchow and under-rotate a triple lutz.  A single salchow is worth .40 points.  A triple salchow is worth 4.40 points.  If she had pulled off the triple, we would be having a very different conversation as she would be sitting in 3rd place with a two point lead over Chen.  However, given how ill Chen was (she couldn’t even practice yesterday) and the number of errors she had in the program, she still only lost to Wagner in the free skate by a little over a point.

Wagner has also promised a new short program if she’s chosen to the Olympic team.  She changed her free skate before nationals to La La Land and it was praised as a success.  That program beat Chen’s which was a program she returned to from last season.  A new short program could be seen as a good sign and breathing some fresh air into stale skates.  But it’s also a risk as there will be no events to compete it at between now and then, and the problem isn’t her performance, but her jumps.  Changing the program won’t make her hit her jumps cleanly, and in fact it might take time away from training those jumps.  Plus La La Land was something she had choreographed over the summer, so it was ready to go, while a new short program would be something she would have to start from scratch with only a month to go.

Interestingly enough, many, including commentators on IceNetwork and Wagner herself are calling into validity the outcome of the event itself.  Wagner’s PCS marks were surprisingly low, especially for her free skate which was skated with such lightness and effortlessness and was truly an artistic program.  While Chen is also a very artistic skater there was a bit of spark missing in her performance today, understandable due to the illness, plus the number of under-rotations she suffered should factor into segments of the PCS such as skating skills.  More speed, more ice coverage, more push into the jumps would all lead to better quality jumps and all count toward skating skills.  Bradie Tennell had the highest program components of the event, and while she had a fine technical skate, she doesn’t have the artistic abilities, performance quality, or musicality of Nagasu, Chen, or Wagner.  If the panel in the room (which is different than the judging panels) agrees, this might be a very different conversation.

There is the team event to consider, but I think both Tennell and Nagasu showed their ability to compete under pressure, plus Tennell is the only US lady to score above 200 points internationally this season (which she did twice) and both would represent the team well (although the US only has to use one if it chooses).

Probably the biggest argument against Wagner, however, is that this has happened in two Olympic cycles now.  She was given a spot over someone else last time, but at a certain point, you have to earn your spot and can’t keep expecting handouts.  And one of the reason’s that the US even has three ladies spots at all is that Chen held it together and skated the performance of her career (although still with some errors) to finish 4th at Worlds and hold on to the third US ladies spot.  If Chen had caved under the pressure, there would be no third spot to be discussing at all.  There is definitely an argument to be made that she earned the spot, she finished 3rd here, so she should get to use it.

The one little thing in the back of my mind though that ever so slightly tips the scales toward Wagner, is that if she had finished 3rd and Chen had finished 4th, would anyone be having this discussion?

Only the committee knows for sure who will be going and we’ll all know tomorrow morning.  Best of luck to all three ladies in PyeongChang!

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