Good Sport: Purpose and routine at the US Figure Skating Nationals

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jeffby Jeff Laughlin

I’m not used to watching figure skating without an enemy.

Usually I get some evil looking, stone-faced European or smarmy, gold-haired Russian to cheer against. The US Figure Skating Championships offered no such easy out. These were the best figure skaters in our country, competing for the national championship. There weren’t collegiate athletes donning foul colors or pros making too much money. They were amateur countrymen skating as our best hope against those other countries.

So I cheered for everyone and fell in line with the monotony of the competition.

These national competitions deal with the nuts and bolts of skating. Unlike X-Games style winter sports, there’s really little left to discover. Each person has a required set of moves they have to pull off in their allotted time. Other than that, the “freestyle” portion of the competition really dictates how graceful a skater looks while she prepares for the next move.

Other national competitions offer differentiation. The national gymnastics meet last year had so many different events in its rotation testing different styles of body control. Skating has only the two questions: Can you twirl steadily? How many times?

Not to say the sport does not have charm. The inherent value of watching skating exists, certainly. Seeing these athletes nail moves and skate with confidence invigorated the crowd time and again. Learning the methods of movement, I learned to predict when the big move would come and when the athletes should have been happy about it.

Watching something so technically brilliant reminds us that muscle memory dominates sports. When Samantha Cesario hit her first trick, the rest of her routine looked as natural as slipping on jeans in the morning. She let her routine take over her, the way that a quarterback throws to a spot instead of a receiver.

The crowds knew when skaters were in stride. Their cheers were short blasts of appreciation between long silences. They reacted to falls with groans and tepid applause, but when a skater really nailed the tough trick, the crowd went nuts.

You can see confidence swell in and out of an amateur. Professional sports can be broken down to the point of percentages, but figure skating can hinge on a skater being lost in their routine — not thinking, just doing.

Robert Przepioski broke character after nailing a trick he’d obviously been having trouble with through his career. He resided near the bottom of the standings and had stumbled on an earlier pass, so with nothing to lose, he launched into a high, rotating triple axle that landed gorgeously. Instead of offering a delicate hand to the judges and crowd, he pumped his fist, slowing for a shadow of a second to revel in his success. After the routine, Przepioski celebrated his way off of the ice. Even the PA announcer got caught up in the moment, calling the skater “one happy guy.”

The judges were unimpressed and relegated Przepioski to a near-bottom finish.

Routine dictated everything. Breaking character bore no rewards, but drew ire. Grace and grandeur won the day in a sport rooted in cultural tapestries rather than changing façades. The spectacular still wowed the spectator, only in short, controlled bursts, and very expectedly.

Perfection was impossible, so we looked for tiny imperfections.

That’s where enemies distract us. Sometimes, we need that extra edge to forget the monotony. When Jason Brown landed on his feet on Sunday, we knew it would happen. We knew Ashley Wagner would get hers and that Brown would dominate.

Fans applauded, and yelled their approval, but it doesn’t mean as much when any one of the competitors would be beloved. Every athlete on the ice deserved and got admiration.

When all of the women looked like Disney princesses and the men looked like their princes — or bad waiters — we concentrated on the mistakes. The athletes danced and leapt, the judges deducted and we deduced, but the whole thing looked predetermined. When forced to focus on the negative, the negative shone through. The day needed an edge. We needed that enemy.

Instead, we got caught in the routine.

  • Ken

    Wanted to take a moment from my busy life, ( Just joking … I’m a guitarist ) and thank you for your coverage of the US figure Skating Nationals. I attended the Friday Night Mens event and was shocked and confused by the score Robert Przepioski got. I then realized, being a fan of this sport would not be my thing. It was my first time attending or watching ice skating and was there only because my daughter needed a ride but I watched and listened and wanted to enjoy. However when passion and joy get an sportsperson a bad score I’m out. I thank you for your reporting, it helped me realize more about how Figure skating works.