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Friday, February 26, 2010
USA's podium absence won't last long

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- It's like the Yankees not reaching the playoffs, North Carolina not making the NCAA tournament, Meryl Streep not getting an Academy Award nomination.

From Peggy Fleming to Sasha Cohen, from Dorothy Hamill's wedge to Michelle Kwan's grace, and from the "Dueling Carmens" to the hired crowbar, the U.S. women always medaled in figure skating, even when they weren't yet women -- Tara Lipinski was 15 when she won the gold at Nagano in 1998.

Mirai Nagasu
Mirai Nagasu finished fourth overall in the Games after Thursday's free program.

But the medal and rhinestone streak ended Thursday. As expected, the American women failed to earn a figure skating medal at the Olympics for the first time since Innsbruck in 1964, three years after the entire U.S. team was killed in a plane crash.

"I'm sorry that I wasn't able to keep up the U.S. trend, but I hope I'll be able to make up for it at the next Olympics," 16-year-old Mirai Nagasu said. "I think the timing will be good, because at 16, you don't have the experience and the maturity they skate with, and hopefully by 20, I'll be able to get that."

Nagasu skated very well and exceeded expectations by jumping from sixth to fourth, 12 points shy of keeping the U.S. streak alive (17-year-old Rachael Flatt finished seventh). She did so despite the unenviable draw of immediately following Joannie Rochette, the Canadian skater whose mother died suddenly over the weekend. Rochette was in third place and had the understandable sympathy of the host nation behind her. If Nagasu had knocked her off the podium, she would have had to skip the medal ceremony so she could beat the mob to the border.

"I was proud of her that she actually went out and did her best after everything she has had to go through, but for me, it wasn't where I wanted to skate," Nagasu said. "I knew that no matter what she did, the fans were going to go crazy for her."

Americans were hampered by a couple things. One, they were competing against the extraordinary Kim Yu-Na, who could make Hamill look like a roller-derby skater. Two, they sent only two athletes to these Games because of a disappointing team performance at last year's World Championships. Making certain the U.S. sends three skaters to Sochi in 2014 will be a priority for the program. And three, they're very young.

Lipinski, of course, was younger than either Nagasu or Flatt when she won her gold in 1998 (she appropriately skated to music from a cartoon), but that was under the old scoring system. The new system makes it less likely for a younger skater to medal because it simply takes longer to learn the technical skills necessary. It isn't just about hopping and jumping.

"The two girls who finished ahead of her are 19, and Joannie is in her 20s," Nagasu's coach, Frank Carroll, said. "They're both world champions, and Joannie is a world [silver] medalist. Mirai is 16 years old. She's not going to jump in right away and knock them off the podium. There are different ways of looking at things. Both [Nagasu and Flatt] did really, really well. I don't think we should be saying negative things because a 16-year-old finished fourth in the Olympics."

These things happen. The Yankees didn't make the postseason in 2008. North Carolina didn't play in the NCAAs in 2002. Streep didn't get nominated for her star turn in the 1994 Simpson's episode "Bart's Girlfriend." The key for the U.S. women is to recover just as the Yankees did by winning the World Series last fall, as North Carolina did by winning the Final Four in 2005, and as Streep did with, well, every movie she's made since, with the possible exception of "It's Complicated."

And the good thing is, there is talent in the farm system, most notably Nagasu. Her performance here and at the upcoming World Championships, Carroll said, "will absolutely make people notice her. It will be 'Don't miss Mirai Nagasu.'"

"I guess everything comes to an end at some point, but I'm not worried about U.S. women's figure skating," 1992 gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi said. "In these two skaters tonight and Ashley Wagner, there's a lot of depth in the U.S. that wasn't able to be shown here, but I think it's going to start building up again. There are so many inspiring performances here that our young skaters watching saw, and that's going to push them to be skating at that level too."

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net.