Sports

John Blanchette: Skating résumés can trump results

McLaughlin and  Brubaker have been a hit from the start. (File)
McLaughlin and Brubaker have been a hit from the start. (File)

Picking an Olympic team is serious business, and apparently not to be trusted to the vagaries of do-or-die competition.

Still, if the U.S. skating aristocracy wanted to do this right, surely it could figure a way to include in the process the Sagarin Ratings, the Colley Matrix and the Harris Poll. All are ingredients in the happy stew that is the BCS, the final word – OK, acronym – in utterly confounding and dubious ways to decide what should be settled in the arena, and it’s hard to believe that skating can stomach being one-upped by college football.

Figure skating invented confounding and dubious.

Just to clarify: What might look like an Olympian on the Spokane Arena scoreboard at these U.S. Figure Skating Championships this weekend and next may not actually be one.

Instead, our sequined envoys to Vancouver will be selected after the last sit-spin by the International Committee Management Subcommittee, a creation not of Monty Python but of U.S. Figure Skating, which runs this show. Those selections may well reflect the outcome here, but the guidelines offer no guarantee that your national champion will be among them – or that someone who suffered an unfortunate pratfall here won’t.

Man, if Dan O’Brien could skate, he might own two gold medals now.

This is just to point out that there may be some mercy from the court if Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker, the reigning national pairs champions, can’t pull themselves out of seventh place this afternoon.

Also that while there’s something to be said for rewarding a body of work, it does take some of the charm out of rooting for underdogs.

Two of those – Caitlin Yankowskas and John Coughlin – managed to sneak into second place Friday with the best skate of their young collaboration, not even a point behind the leaders, Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett. Because of an ongoing lackluster international history in pairs, only two Olympic berths are available to the United States, making things a little dicey for McLaughlin and Brubaker, who turned the short program into demolition derby.

First, McLaughlin tumbled on their side-by-side triple salchows, and then caught the heel of her skate blade in the ice to abort a death spiral with another crash. Tensely trying to hold it together to the finish, they scored just 52.55 points – more than 10 behind the leaders.

“I’m not going to lie – I’m upset,” McLaughlin said. “Instead of keeping myself positive I was thinking like, ‘OK, I hope I don’t mess up’ – and that’s not what you think. Absolutely, it’s not what you think.”

Nor do you think that, now that you’ve messed up, it’s all over.

“With the new judging system, it’s different,” Brubaker insisted. “We’re about 10 points out of first. Realistically, that can be made up in one, two elements. We just have to go out and skate our best and not worry about what everyone else is doing.”

Because, really, who knows if it will matter what anyone else is doing? Barring another meltdown, it’s altogether possible a good free skate gets McLaughlin and Brubaker to Vancouver even if they don’t squeak into the top two. The selectors take into account results from six competitions, including last year’s world championships – and there aren’t a lot of merit badges among the pairs.

Which seems to argue against the back-room show-of-hands concept of picking a team, though not to everyone.

“The Olympics are only once every four years and you want the strongest team,” said Scott Hamilton, the gold medalist-turned-commentator. “It’s going to be really difficult, regardless of the finish here, not to send Evan Lysacek – he’s the reigning world champion and you want the opportunity to do that.

“Let’s say I show up and there’s this string of guys who’ve all medaled at worlds or the Grand Prix final, other international events and some day I want to be in their shoes – and I come away with the national title and they’re 2-3-4. It would be hard pill to swallow but realistically I’d have to say, yeah, they have a better chance at medaling. You’ve got to respect that.”

Perhaps in the abstract. In the moment, maybe not so much.

In any event, McLaughlin and Brubaker can still make the selectors’ jobs easier.

“Last year, they did not skate a good short program and came up to win,” said their coach, John Nicks. “That’s a good reference to start from. But this ice skating business is risky sometimes. You’re on that quarter-inch blade and if you’re a couple of degrees off – bop, there you go.”

There you go – hitching a ride to the Olympics on your résumé.



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