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Junior skaters shouldn't face senior pressure

March 16, 2000
By Sandra Loosemore
SportsLine.com Sports Writer

At the World Junior Figure Skating Championships last week in Oberstdorf, Germany, the U.S. team collected an impressive haul of five medals -- two each in the ladies' and ice dance events, and one in the men's.

But the biggest story of the competition was not who medaled, but who did not: Sasha Cohen, who placed second at the senior U.S. Championships last month, finished sixth at this junior event.

 
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On the basis of her finish at nationals, Cohen had been provisionally named to the U.S. team for the senior World Championships coming up in Nice, France, later this month, but she needed to medal at the World Junior Championships in order to earn an exemption from the ISU's age requirements for international senior events. The ISU normally requires skaters to be at least 15 by the July 1 preceding the championships -- Cohen turned 15 last October. Now she will be forced to stay home while the U.S. sends alternate Angela Nikodinov to compete in her place.

Cohen's collapse in Oberstdorf -- she fell twice in the short program and landed only three clean triple jumps in qualifying and four in the free skate -- caused much clucking and consternation among fans, and no doubt the USFSA as well. The heat isn't being directed at Cohen herself, but rather at the ISU's arcane rules that required her to have to jump through such hoops to qualify for the World Championships.

The ISU's age restrictions are supposed to serve the dual purpose of protecting young athletes from the demands of elite-level competition and the additional performance and publicity duties that come with it nowadays, and protecting the image of the sport. After seeing gymnastics suffer for it, the powers-that-be didn't want skating to also be perceived by the public as a sport that chews up little girls and spits them out again.

Instead, what has happened is that in quite a number of cases, the national governing bodies are burdening their younger skaters with twice the competition load of the older competitors by sending them to compete on both the junior and senior international circuits in the same season. And young athletes such as Cohen and last year's wunderkind, Naomi Nari Nam, have brought controversy and negative attention to the sport simply because they have not been allowed to compete as seniors.

The exception in the ISU's rules allowing underage medalists from the World Junior Championships to compete at the senior championships has existed for some time, and it is the reason why Sarah Hughes, a year younger than Cohen, will be competing next week at her second senior World Championships. While it might be reasonable to give exceptional juniors a chance to move up to the senior level regardless of their age, the problem is that, starting this season, the ISU has shifted the timing of the World Junior event from its previous slot in late November or early December to only two weeks before the opening of the senior championships. This gives the athletes far less time to prepare and to make the transition from junior to senior.

In addition to dealing with the obvious problems of travel and jet lag from doing two events within such a short time frame, skaters who attempt to compete in both events face another complication: There are different technical requirements at the two levels, requiring skaters to prepare different sets of programs. For example, the required elements in the short program are different for juniors than they are for seniors, and junior free skating programs are 30 seconds shorter than at the senior level.

If the ISU is truly interested in protecting the welfare of the younger skaters, they should: 1) Abolish the loophole that allows the under-15 skaters to qualify for senior competition by medaling at Junior Worlds; 2) Forbid the 15- to 18-year-olds from competing in both circuits in the same season.

Coincidentally, this would also solve another problem that was particularly evident in the men's competition at World Juniors: All four of the top finishers this year were not really juniors at all, after having previously competed on the senior international circuit all season long. Vincent Restencourt, in fact, even qualified for the senior Grand Prix Final, while Stefan Lindemann not only finished a respectable eighth at the European Championships last month, but also competed at the Europeans and the senior World Championships last season. Essentially, these skaters were "sandbagging" at what is supposed to be a developmental-level competition, picking up easy prize money at the expense of the skaters who truly are junior-level competitors.

As far as Cohen's situation is concerned, in retrospect many have been questioning not only the purpose of the loophole in the ISU's age rules, but the wisdom of the USFSA's international committee in trying to push Cohen through it, and the role of the media in building up unrealistic expectations for Cohen. She's undoubtedly a fine skater, but was it all too much to expect from someone who had never competed in a major international event before? Cohen was reportedly being hounded by the media in Oberstdorf and one wonders how much the persistent distractions and hype contributed to her sub-par performances.

And hype it's been. For example, it's been curious how, since the U.S. Championships, the press has been attempting to rewrite history to exaggerate Cohen's achievements at that event. One recent Associated Press article claimed that Cohen "finished a close second," and another said that she "nearly beat Michelle Kwan." In fact, Kwan's victory against Cohen in Cleveland was not close at all. Cohen did not receive a single first-place vote from the judges in the free skating, and barely hung on to second place with a 5-4 decision over Hughes.

On top of that, other recent news articles have gushed over Cohen's "tiny pointed feet," her "dainty jumps," and her "balletic flexibility." But the size of one's feet has nothing to do with the way skating is judged. The rulebook emphasizes landing jumps cleanly on one foot but says nothing about making them appear "dainty," and displays of flexibility are not nearly as important in the judging as consistency on the difficult technical elements. Skating insiders might recognize the utter cluelessness about the sport displayed by journalists in making these comments, but what about the general public?

As far as blaming the USFSA goes, this might just turn out to be a case of 20/20 hindsight. Some might have accurately predicted the difficulty Cohen would have in living up to the expectations for her to qualify for Worlds, but there's also a school of thought that favors moving the younger skaters onto the senior circuit as early as possible in order to maximize their chances for international experience and exposure before the next Olympic Games. It might have been a long shot, but denying Cohen a chance to try probably would have been just as controversial and perhaps would not have led to her skating any better in Oberstdorf.

Meanwhile, it's not as if the U.S. is lacking in other talent and is solely dependent on Cohen to carry the ladies' program in the future. In fact, just the opposite is the case.

At Junior Worlds, gold medalist Jennifer Kirk was this month's Sasha Cohen. 
At Junior Worlds, gold medalist Jennifer Kirk was this month's Sasha Cohen.(AP) 

The winner at World Juniors turned out to be Jennifer Kirk, another 15-year-old American who has an even more youthful appearance on the ice than Cohen does. While Kirk currently lacks Cohen's "packaging" and, more critically from a judging point of view, the speed and power of a senior-level skater, what she does have is some of the most consistent jumping in skating today at either the junior or senior level. In Oberstdorf she laid down three clean programs, landing seven triple jumps -- including a triple/triple combination -- in the qualifying round and the free skate, an accomplishment that would be impressive even from much older and more experienced competitors.

And finishing a close second was Deanna Stellato, who also skated strongly throughout the entire competition. At 16 she was the oldest of the three U.S. competitors at World Juniors. She was also the least "junior-ish," in terms of appearance and skating ability, of the three.

Looking ahead to next season, it's likely that all three of these talented skaters are going to be ready to move up to the senior international circuit, and the USFSA's dilemma is going to be finding appropriate competition opportunities for all of the skaters who deserve them. In addition to Kirk, Stellato and Cohen, there are at least five other U.S. skaters who have some claim to receiving senior international assignments, but it's not likely that there will be enough slots on the prestigious Grand Prix circuit to accommodate them all. So the USFSA is going to have to make some tough decisions. On the other hand, most of the other national skating federations would probably like to have such a "problem" on their hands!