GANGNEUNG, South Korea >> One by one, the best in American figure skating fell to the ice, their Olympic hopes dashed in the opening seconds of their short programs at the Pyeongchang Games.
It was emblematic of the state of U.S. figure skating.
Sure, Nathan Chen did rebound from a dismal short program to have the highest-scoring free skate in the men’s Olympic program. The Shibutani siblings, Maia and Alex, won ice dance bronze. The U.S. squad even managed to hold off Italy and Japan to win bronze in the team event.
But for the every-four-year fan, figure skating begins and ends with the women, and there was no doubt during Wednesday’s short program that the U.S. has fallen well behind its rivals.
Bradie Tennell went down first. Mirai Nagasu went down later. And when Karen Chen hit the deck, the Americans were left with their worst short program showing in any Olympics, and now face the prospect of their worst performance overall unless they rally in Friday’s free skate.
So why did everything go wrong? When did the once-proud nation that produced seven gold medalists between the 1952 Oslo Games and the 2006 Turin Games get lapped by Russia, Japan and Canada?
Where are this generation’s Peggy Fleming, Kristi Yamaguchi and Tara Lipinski?
“It’s a good question,” said Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches Nagasu and other top American skaters at Broadmoor Skating Club in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “It’s a good question without an easy answer.”
Some would argue the decline began when Kwan, one of the most popular Olympians ever, began to withdraw from the competitive scene in the mid-2000s. The sport was left without a clear American face at a time when more extreme sports, such as snowboarding, were ballooning in popularity. The fallout was noticeable within U.S. Figure Skating, where membership declined three straight years.
Many kids were choosing the snow over the ice, and a decade later, Chloe Kim is gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated with her gold medal from the women’s halfpipe.
Meanwhile, figure skating remained prevalent in nations such as Russia, where top skaters are among the most popular athletes in any sport. Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva are expected to claim gold and silver in some order in Pyeongchang, and they spent Wednesday swapping the world record for a short program, each finishing more than 15 points ahead of Nagasu — the top American in ninth place.
“It’s tough to find that talent, that wants to dedicate themselves and challenge themselves to everyone in the world,” said Fleming, who won gold at the 1968 Grenoble Games. “It’s not for everyone.”
The U.S. had been successful at the Winter Olympics before Fleming, winning back-to-back golds with Tenley Albright and Carol Heiss. But it was Fleming’s dazzling performance in the French Alps that truly started an era of American domination, when the stars and stripes would fly for at least one medalist in every games through Sasha Cohen’s silver medal in Italy in 2006.
Some years, the biggest question was which American would stand on the top step of the podium. Lipinski and Kwan went 1-2 at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, and when Sarah Hughes won gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, Kwan finished third and Cohen finished fourth.
But it was after those Olympics, most insiders believe, that the U.S. began to fall behind.
The judging scandal in Salt Lake City led the International Skating Union to replace its old system with one that rewards points for various elements. But the new structure harshly penalizes mistakes, and when the U.S. implemented the system, it did so in a straightforward way.
The result: Young skaters were reluctant to try the hardest elements and risk failure.
Other nations tweaked the scoring, or paid less attention to it, and encouraged their young stars to push the envelope. Soon, young Russian and Japanese skaters that were falling every time they tried a triple lutz were landing it, and then taking those big jumps into competition.
It wasn’t until after a dismal showing at the 2014 Sochi Games that the U.S. followed suit.
“By the time it was in force for the 2015-16 season, when they began giving a bonus and incentive to these kids to try more and push the bar and up the tech ante, the U.S. fell behind,” said Lipinski, who has spent the month in South Korea as a figure skating analyst for NBC.
In fact, Russia and Japan have combined to win the last 15 women’s medals over the last five junior world championships, which traditionally serve as a coming-out party for Olympic hopefuls.
“Over the next four years,” Lipinski said, “maybe we will see a jump from the U.S. as well.”
There are indeed reasons to be hopeful.
Last year, U.S. Figure Skating reported its fourth straight year of membership growth. The national championships last month drew 5.4 million TV viewers to the women’s free skate, up 7 percent from the previous Olympic year and the most since the 2010 event. And every event during the Pyeongchang Olympics has been carried live on NBC’s platforms, including more prime-time hours than any other sport.
Those are all signs the sport is beginning another upswing.
Then there are the novice and junior skaters that are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible — phenoms such as Alysa Liu, the talented and precocious 12-year-old from the Bay Area who won the junior U.S. title in San Jose, California, as the youngest skater in the field.
So yes, Medvedeva skates with the timing and precision of a Swiss watch, and Zagitova has the uncanny ability to land jumps without ever growing tired. And yes, those two Russians are almost certain to take gold and silver here.
It might not be such a foregone conclusion four years from now.
“You’re starting to see a lot of up-and-coming kids trying the triples, trying the triple-triples, and even below juniors,” Zakrajsek said. “They’re doing all the jumps at a much younger age, and that’s what is going to help get the American women back on the world scene.”
AP Sports Writer Barry Wilner contributed to this report.
More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org