Meet the U.S. Olympic Figure Skating Team’s “ShibSibs”

My brother and I are big fans of two individuals named Alex and Maia Shibutani. They’re Japanese American, exactly three years apart (ages 22 and 19, respectively) and they’re siblings. In all three instances, the Shibutanis and my brother and I are the same. The big difference between us? My brother and I are not figure skaters competing in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

The Michigan-based siblings have just finished their first Olympic experience by placing in the top 10 for ice dancing, despite a wardrobe malfunction during their Michael Jackson medley routine in which Maia’s tights caught onto Alex’s costume during a difficult lift.

But the brother-sister team couldn’t be happier. “Everything went the way it should,” said Alex in an interview with the Greenwich-Post. “We’ve been taking everything in since we’ve gotten here so to finally have our Olympic moment it totally blew our expectations.”

Ice skating isn’t the only thing they’re good at. Alex and Maia, also known as the “ShibSibs” on their personal YouTube account, are also funny, light-hearted social media personas. Their YouTube account, which since its founding in 2012 has already gained 9,000 subscribers and over 1 million views, is compiled of silly vlogs and bloopers captured amidst the seriousness of their training.

“[Alex] is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met,” said Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion and NBC Olympic figure skating commentator. “He has a [really] dry sense of humor.”

The duo has promised to upload more behind-the-scenes at Sochi vlogs when they return to the states to begin training for their last competition of the season at the World Championships in Saitama, Japan.

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The Queen’s Reign Ends: Yuna Kim Settles for Silver

Story by Olivia Ouyang. 

Yuna Kim, or the Queen as she is fondly known in the skating world, delivered the program everyone expected of her. Unfortunately, perfection was not enough for the gold medal. The 2010 Olympic Champion and 2013 World Champion led by a small margin after the short program but ultimately settled for silver, 5.48 points off of gold.

It was Adelina Sotnikova who usurped the Queen, claiming for Russia their first gold medal in women’s figure skating. The nineteen-year-old, who won her first Russian national title at the age of twelve, was a bit of a dark horse coming into the competition. In the build up to the Games, Sotnikova had been in the shadow of her younger teammate, Yulia Lipnitskaya, who helped Russia win the team figure skating gold. However, Lipnitskaya faltered in both the short and long program and settled for fifth.

Capturing Italy’s first Olympic figure skating medal was Carolina Kostner, the 27-year-old veteran. In her third and final Olympics, Kostner finally suppressed her nerves and skated a clean short and long program. After disappointing finishes in Torino and Vancouver, an Olympic bronze medal is an appropriate way to cap the career of one of the most beautiful skaters of all time.

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One of the best and most emotional programs of the night came from Japan’s Mao Asada, who was thought to be a gold medal contender coming into the competition. However, after a disastrous short program, Asada sat in sixteenth place. Heartbroken after her skate, Asada came into the long program with something to prove. With steely determination, Asada skated a clean program and broke into tears at the end. She ultimately moved up ten spots and finished in sixth place. Although she was unable to capture another medal, Asada could not have asked for a better skate with which to end her career.

The Americans threw down respectable programs and all three finished in the top ten. Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner, and Polina Edmunds placed fourth, seventh, and ninth respectively.

Since the start of the Games, the ladies’ figure skating competition has been posed as a battle between the girls and the women. The free skate event tonight demonstrated the qualities of both youth and experience. In four years, the Olympics will be in South Korea. At that time, Kim will be 27, the same age as Kostner is now. If the Queen is able to keep up her level of skating, there is a good chance she will be able to reclaim her throne in front of a home crowd.

 

The Rise of the Asian Male Figure Skater

Story by Olivia Ouyang.

On a night when mistakes abounded, history was made. The men’s free skate competition was far from memorable, with falls occurring left and right. However, it was an evening for the books. For the first time in the history of Olympic figure skating, an Asian male won the event. Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu skated far below his abilities, falling twice during his program. However, he was able to edge out the competition and solidify the rise of the Asian male skater.

The Japan Figure Skating Championships is considered one of the hardest competitions simply because of the depth of the country’s field. Its two other representatives, Tatsuki Machida and Daisuke Takahashi, finished fifth and sixth respectively. Takahashi, who made history in 2010 by becoming the first Asian man to win the World Championships, did not even make the podium at Japanese nationals. However, given his experience, which includes a bronze medal at the prior Olympics, Takahashi was given a spot on the team.

It is worth noting that all three medalists are of Asian descent. Silver medalist Patrick Chan is of Chinese descent; both his parents immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada in the early part of their lives. Chan created a stir a few years ago when he told Reuters that he wished he could skate for China because the country appreciates their figure skaters whereas Canadians only value hockey. The statement was later retracted. The three-time World Champion was a contender for the gold medal, trailing Hanyu by less than four points. After Hanyu’s errors, the door was open for Chan to step in and clench the gold. However, the veteran skater made numerous errors and was unable to close the gap.

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After the short program, only 3.5 points separated third and eleventh place, leaving the bronze medal was up for grabs. It was Denis Ten, the 2013 World silver medalist, who rose to the occasion. Representing Kazakhstan, Ten is of Korean descent. His great-great-grandfather was Min Keung Ho, a Korean general in the war against Japan for independence in the early 20th century. Ten rose from ninth the third place with one of the best programs of the night.

Michael Christian Martinez, the first figure skater and only athlete from the Philippines at these Games placed a respectable nineteenth place. Read more on his story here.

The ladies’ competition gets underway today. Unlike the men, Asian women have dominated the past two Olympics, beginning with Shizuka Arakawa’s victory at the 2006 Torino Olympics. Reigning Olympic champion Yuna Kim of Korea is competing here in Sochi to defend her title. Also in the mix is Mao Asada, the 2010 Olympic silver medalist who is looking to improve on her prior finish and get gold.

Russians Back on Top; Chinese Off The Podium

Story by Olivia Ouyang. 

Four years ago, Russian figure skating was rattled when, for the first time since 1964, neither of its pair teams made the Olympic podium. Yesterday, Russia proved that they are still the best in the sport, clinching the gold and silver medal. Tatiana Voloshozar and Maxim Trankov were the favorites coming into the competition as the reigning, three-time European champions. Skating to Jesus Christ Superstar, their program was nearly perfect although Voloshozar touched her hand down on a throw triple loop. Voloshozar and Trankov’s main rivals were supposed to be the German pair of Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy. However, they succumbed to the pressure, each falling once. They ended up in third place and collected their second Olympic bronze medal. The mistakes of the Germans allowed room for Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov to move up into second place with a clean skate. Both Russian pairs now have two gold medals, having helped their country win the team figure skating event over the weekend.

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China off the podium

While Russia reasserted its dominance, China dropped off of the podium. At both the 2006 and 2010 Olympics, two Chinese pair teams finished in the top three. So what happened in Sochi? Clearly, China is going through a changing of the guard. Finishing in fourth place were Qing Pang and Jiang Tong, who won the silver medal in Vancouver. While the 35-year-olds skated a beautiful program to I Dreamed A Dream from Les Misérables for their fourth and final Olympic appearance, it was clear that Pang and Tong were past their prime. Botching their first side-by-side jumps, the pair lacked their former dynamism. However, they finished the routine with smiles and looking satisfied. The pair has been engaged since 2011 but put off marriage in order to train for these Olympics. As one of the original pairs who helped put China on the figure skating map, the legacy of Pang and Tong will be remembered fondly for years to come.

China’s second pair team, consisting of Cheng Peng and Hao Zhang, finished in eighth place. This team highlights the inevitable shift from the old and to the new generation of skaters in China. Zhang, age 29, won the silver medal at the 2006 Turin Olympics with former partner Dan Zhang, who retired from skating in 2012. Zhang was then partnered with Peng, a petite sixteen-year-old skater. An oddly-matched team, even their coach Hongbo Zhao, the 2010 Olympic gold medalist who now coaches for China, remarked, “In the future, I hope they can go out and not look like an older brother skating with a younger sister.” However, if Peng is an indication of what China has in store for the future, the rest of the world better watch out. Peng and Zhang made history yesterday by executing the first quadruple twist ever at the Olympics. With dedicated coaches like Zhao and Yao Bin, the man who single-handedly cultivated the Chinese pairs machine, it is only a matter of time before China finds its way to the top again.

 

Russia Wins The First Team Figure Skating Gold Medal, U.S. In Third

Story by Olivia Ouyang.

The first ever team figure skating event concluded yesterday with the men’s and ladies’ long program and free dance. Veteran Yevgeny Plushenko sealed Russia’s fate as the gold medalist after winning the men’s free skate. However, there were plenty of other highlights over the course of the three-day event that began on Thursday, the day before the opening ceremonies.

Unique to this competition is that skaters who would not normally be in the spotlight are able to compete alongside the world’s best. For example, Japan has some of the strongest singles skaters in the world. However, they have much weaker pairs and ice dancing teams. Because of the team structure of this competition, these Japanese skaters shared the ice with the best in the field. In addition, the five countries that qualified for the finals were allowed up to two substitutions for the long programs and free dance. Most countries took advantage of this rule and let some less experienced skaters compete.

While this was a nice way to kick off the Olympics, the real action starts on Tuesday when the individual events get underway.  However, the team event gave audiences a nice preview of who to watch.

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Men’s: Yuzuru Hanyu (Japan) won the men’s short program, edging out Plushenko by a little over six points. Patrick Chan of Canada also proved he is a medal contender by placing third in the short. Although Plushenko won the long program, Kevin Reynolds of Canada and Tatsuki Machida were right on his heels.

Ladies’: Yulia Lipnitskaya, the 15-year-old from Russia, proved that she is the girl to beat, dominating both the short and long programs. Veteran Carolina Kostner pulled together one of her best programs ever and placed second in the short. If she skates like that in the individual competition, she is definitely a medal contender. Mao Asada, one of the few women with a triple axel, fell on the element in the short program but still managed to cling to third. Ashley Wagner partially redeemed herself after a devastating performance at U.S. Nationals that sparked quite the controversy when she was selected for the Olympic team over bronze medalist Mirai Nagasu (for more on this story, click here). Lastly but certainly not least, Gracie Gold, the current U.S. National champion, came the closest to challenging Lipnitskaya, placing second in the free skate.

Pairs: As it has been for the past decade, the top three pair teams in the world are still the Russians, Canadians, and Chinese. All three countries have such a deep team that it will be interesting to see who ends up on top.

Ice Dancing: Meryl Davis and Charlie White demonstrated why they are the favorites to win the Olympics, scoring a season’s best during the free dance and winning both portions of the competition. Their closest rivals (both literally and figuratively) are Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir who represent Canada but happen to be their training mates. Marina Zoueva coaches both teams.

 

The Reason You Haven’t Heard: Why Mirai Nagasu Deserves to be on Team USA

Nagasu decision not in line with those made for mens, pairs teams

Story by Olivia Ouyang.

You have probably heard by now that Mirai Nagasu, the bronze medalist at the Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships this past weekend, was left off of the 2014 U.S. Olympic and World figure skating teams. After all, the monumental decision has been all over the news and radio, covered by media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and CNN. While strangers to the sport might sympathize with Nagasu, they might wonder why the decision is receiving so much press coverage. After all, it’s in the “rulebook.” However, to an insider of figure skating, the decision to leave Nagasu off of the Olympic and World teams sets a dangerous precedent. Through their actions, the USFS committee has made it clear that they can and will operate in a subjective rather than objective manner that jeopardizes the precious virtue of fairness that is supposed to be inherent in athletic competition.

First off, let me explain the reasons why people are angry. Traditionally, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships has been the sole determinant of the Olympic and World teams. In the history of U.S. Figure Skating, the committee has only sent a skater who did not place at nationals to the Olympics and Worlds three times—Todd Eldredge in 1992, Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, and Michelle Kwan in 2006. Why did these three skaters not place at nationals? Because they were not there. All three were injured and missed nationals, filing appeals that were ultimately granted. This year is the first time that a skater has performed poorly at the U.S. Championships and still made it on to the team. Moreover, the generous scores from the judges did not really reflect how poorly Wagner skated. It was clear that the judges were hoping that Wagner, who skated before Nagasu, could still make it onto the podium.

Other fans feel that Polina Edmunds, the fifteen-year-old silver medalist, should have been bumped off the team rather than Nagasu. After all, Edmunds has never competed internationally at the senior level. Given Edmunds’ “body of work,” it is clear that Nagasu, who placed fourth at the previous Olympics, won the bronze medal at the 2013 Rostelecom Cup, and is a three-time national medalist, including a gold medal in 2008, has a much more impressive “body of work.”  Some have gone as far to say that the decision to leave Nagasu off the team was a racial one (she is Japanese, while Edmunds is Russian and Wagner is German). Personally, I think the racial allegations are unfounded.

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However, what got me really mad and what no one else seems to be talking about, is the World and Olympic assignments for the men’s and pairs’ teams. In both situations, the silver medalists were surprises: Jason Brown in the men’s competition and Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay in the pairs’ competition. Despite the relative inexperience of these three skaters, the USFS committee decided to send them to the Olympics. However, these skaters were cut from the World team. Instead, Max Aaron, the 2013 national champion who finished with a bronze medal this year, will represent the U.S in the men’s competition. Likewise, Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, who won nationals last year but placed third this year, will go to Worlds instead of Zhang and Bartholomay. While I do not necessarily understand or agree with the logic of these decisions, I believe USFS should be consistent. Therefore, following this pattern, Nagasu should be allowed to compete at the Olympics and Wagner should compete at Worlds. The fact that USFS felt it acceptable to take Nagasu off of both the Olympic and World teams, dashing her hopes for a medal at either, is infuriating. Why is Nagasu not being treated with the same respect as Brown or Zhang and Bartholomay? That is a question I cannot answer. While there is a chance that Nagasu may still be able to compete at Worlds (oftentimes, if a skater medals at the Olympics, he/she will withdraw from Worlds), the fact remains that Nagasu received unfair treatment when compared to the decisions made regarding the men’s and pairs’ teams.

I want to make clear that this is not an attack on Ashley Wagner. Wagner is without a doubt one of the best current American figure skaters and, until nationals, she had a remarkable season. She garnered a silver and gold medal at Skate America and Trophee Eric Bompard respectively. She entered the competition this weekend as the reigning national champion and the recently crowned bronze medalist of the Grand Prix Final. I empathize with Wagner, who has been forced to sign off of social media due to the influx of hateful posts from supporters of Nagasu. Wagner is, after all, part of the reason why the U.S. can even send three skaters to Sochi (her fifth place finish at Worlds last year helped secure three spots for Team USA).

 

However, the fact remains that U.S. Figure Skating essentially slapped Nagasu in the face. Whether this is because she showed up without a coach or for other reasons, we will probably never know. It was clear to everyone who watched Nagasu’s free skate on Saturday that she had risen to the occasion. The dedicated athlete who had worked so hard to regain ground after two disappointing seasons, the young lady who gasped with joy when she found at she was back on the national podium, the beautiful skater who should be at least going to either Worlds or the Olympics, was reduced to tears on Sunday night during her exhibition program after U.S. Figure Skating, an organization to which she had dedicated her life, stole away her dreams.