This weekend in Detroit, Alysa Liu won the senior ladies national title. Yet despite that, Liu won’t be competing at the 2019 world championships in Saitama, Japan. Those berths will go to second and third place finishers, Bradie Tennell and Mariah Bell. Disqualifying Liu is the fact that she’s 13 years old.
What Liu did on Friday night—overtaking older, more experienced skaters who are eligible to compete on the senior circuit—was not an isolated incident in the world of women’s figure skating. At last month’s Russian national championships, the top three positions were held by skaters who were also age-ineligible for this year’s senior world championships. (Though they are, unlike Liu, eligible for junior worlds. Liu’s birthdate is about five weeks shy of the cutoff mark, so she was unable to take part in this season’s junior Grand Prix circuit. The most she could do is enter an “advanced novice” competition, against skaters she has already beaten.) The first senior age-eligible skater at the Russian championships was Stanislava Konstantinova, who came in fourth. 2018 Olympic champion Alina Zagitova finished fifth. Sofia Samodurova, who, a month later, would skate to the 2019 European title, was sixth. And two-time world champion Evgenia Medvedeva, who has struggled all season long, was seventh.
What Liu and the young Russians all have in common beyond relative youth—no one we’re talking about is truly “old”—is supernal jumping ability aided by their small size. Liu became the first U.S. woman to land a triple axel in both her long and short programs at nationals. In fact, she did two in her long—the first in combination with a double toe loop. Some of the Russian girls, like junior world champion Alexandra Trusova, can do quad jumps. In Trusova’s case, she can do more than one and in combination with other jumps. When Trusova debuted her quad in competition last year, she was the first woman to rotate one since 2002 when Miki Ando did it. Like Trusova, Ando was a junior when she successfully competed the jump.
Ando’s accomplishment, while widely admired at the time, didn’t start a trend of women attempting quads in competition. In fact, by the time Ando transitioned to the senior ranks her quad was gone, though that didn’t stop her from winning the 2007 and 2011 world titles.
Looking at Ando’s feat, the young Russian skaters’ jumping skill, and Liu’s accomplishment this past weekend, you might be wondering why these young skaters are being kept out of the highest echelon of competition? Why are the age lines drawn in such a way to keep athletes out of the Olympics who might otherwise have the skill to excel in these competitions?
Most sports have age minimums, though the ages and reasons for them vary according to discipline. Gymnastics and track and field have the highest at age 16. Figure skating is next with a requirement to turn 15 before July 1st of the preceding year. Swimming doesn’t have any age restrictions, which is why a 15-year-old Katie Ledecky won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics and why a 10-year-old swam in heats at the 2015 world championships. Perhaps those in charge of swimming don’t think the sport needs one, since young children would have trouble defeating adult swimmers who’ve attained their full height and strength via puberty. A 15-year-old Michael Phelps didn’t even medal in 2000 in his first Olympic appearance (though he did win his first world title the following year).
On the other hand, both figure skating and gymnastics have repeatedly raised their age minimums throughout the decades in response to the downward trend in the age of elite athletes. The reasons given for these changes have always been about equal parts protection and equal parts protectionism.
The protection part is obvious. Training very young athletes to master these skills when their bodies are still growing and developing has the potential to lead to injury and burnout. This is what happened to Russian phenom Yulia Lipnitskaya, who was the darling of the Sochi Games at 15. A few years after those Olympics, Lipnitskaya announced her retirement due in part to her struggle with an eating disorder. Ditto for Adelina Sotnikova, who was 17 when she won a controversial gold over South Korean Yuna Kim in Sochi. She was injured after Sochi and didn’t ever compete again. We don’t even need to look to the Russians for examples of female figure skaters who were successful very young and then quickly disappeared. The most famous of these is Tara Lipinski, who became the youngest world champion in 1997 at 14 and then the youngest Olympic champion in 1998 at 15. She stopped skating competitively after the Olympics due to chronic hip problems.
The other piece of this is the protectionism part. Keeping young skaters out of the senior ranks is a way of protecting the prospects of older skaters who perhaps can’t match the jumping capacity of the tiny skaters who use their small frames to rotate quickly. And it’s also a way of protecting the reputation of the sport as one suitable for adult women, instead of girls. This is the image that for whatever reason the ISU wants to project.
And since the most recent Olympics, when the then-15-year-old Zagitova became the second-youngest skater in history to win the Olympic crown, and as more videos of tiny jumping Russians have surfaced on the internet, there has been renewed discussion of raising the age line to 17 or even 18. In May at the International Skating Union’s congress, the Dutch delegation formally proposed increasing the age minimum to 17.
From the proposal:
“At Senior Championships and the OWG (Olympic Winter Games), we need to show mature skaters with well-balanced programs. This will improve the image of our sport: media and audience would like to see `idols’ who compete for a longer period of time.
“Younger skaters are able to show more difficult elements until they are fully matured. Therefore we are currently losing Seniors skaters who are afraid they cannot compete with these younger skaters in Senior Events.”
This bit of the text gets at a lot of things, noting that before puberty, female athletes are able to do more complex athletic feats, like extra revolutions on jumps. True.
It also makes certain assumptions about what the audience wishes to see. It’s taken almost as an article of gospel that spectators prefer watching older skaters perform even if the popularity of skating in places like Russia and Japan—where very tiny, precocious jumpers abound—suggests that fans are not primarily focused on watching mature women compete—or on watching the same skaters dominate for extended periods.
As for the loss of senior skaters—it’s natural for athletes to size up the competition and determine their place in it and decide whether or not they should keep going, whether they have a chance to win. The fact that some skaters have apparently decided that they can’t compete with the youngsters is not really adequate justification for keeping those youngsters out of the big leagues.
The only rationale I am willing to accept for age minimums is for protecting young skaters from injury and general harm. If there is anything the last two years covering Olympic sports has shown me, it’s that these athletes are not adequately protected and that younger athletes are at greater risk for exploitation. That being said, keeping skaters like Trusova out of the senior field hasn’t exactly stopped her and others from executing quads in junior events and pounding away on them in practice. She just can’t do them on her sport’s biggest stage. She’s not being protected in any meaningful way.
If the ISU was truly concerned about the well-being of young skaters, they would ban these jumps from junior competition. In fact, if they were concerned about the physical well-being of all skaters, they would reduce the number of jumping passes in junior and senior programs, since those elements cause pain and injury in older skaters, too. And reducing the number of jumps would cut into the points-earning advantage young skaters hold over the older skaters without having to arbitrarily draw a line between who is too young to compete and who is old enough.
The Dutch federation’s proposal wasn’t adopted. But just because official policy change is off the table, for now, this doesn’t mean the issue won’t be raised again, as the younger skaters keep winning.
Just because some young skaters can do jumps that the older women don’t doesn’t mean they are, overall, better skaters than their older counterparts. I’d say that the older skaters are still generally more skilled than the young girls who are doing quads. There is more to skating than the jumps and spins even if those elements are the most spectacular and most easily understood by a general audience.
Older—I cringe every time I type this word because these women are not old by any metric found outside of figure skating—skaters usually have better skating skills, the deep edges that allow them to accelerate with just a few strokes. And most importantly, they tend to be much better at performing and interpreting the music. Figure skating is an expressive, aesthetic sport so being able to interpret music and emote on the ice matters, even if it is difficult to measure and quantify. And even if “Will she/won’t she emote?” is not a suspenseful story the way “will she fall on her jumps?” is, both play roles in scoring.
Still, while making the case for the overall supremacy of older skaters, it is a peculiar phenomenon for a sport for its “senior elite” cohort to not be the best at everything across the board. Typically, the most elite level—certainly the Olympic-eligible part—is the best at absolutely everything. But when you have a cohort of juniors who can do quads when none of the senior ladies can, well, it is odd.
And just because we haven’t seen a senior woman do a quad doesn’t mean they absolutely cannot; there has yet to be incentive for older skaters to train them because no one else in that cohort is doing them. But if just one of those Russian junior skaters manages to transition to senior competition with a fully rotated quad, that might change the game and others might have to follow suit.
The arguments for changing age minimums—short careers, injury, burnout—invite the question: What makes for a good skating career? Is it one that is a long narrative arc with disappointments and victories along the way like Michelle Kwan or, more recently, Italy’s Carolina Kostner? Or is short but punctuated with a couple of big wins? I don’t know if Lipinski would’ve liked to skate longer at the elite competitive level than she actually did but she seems, at least to me, pretty pleased with her short, very successful career. (While she lost her “youngest national champion” record this week to Liu, her youngest world and Olympic champion records are likely to endure because the age minimums, if they ever budge, aren’t going to move down.).
Lipinski competed at two world championships—which is more than some skaters—and then won the top prize in her sport. Then she moved on like so many Olympic champions have before her. Had the age minimums been different, would it have been a simple matter of shifting her best performances to 19 or 20, or would we have never heard of her because she would’ve been past her personal prime before she even had the opportunity to compete at the Olympics?
In response to the renewed debate over age minimums, Sarah Hughes, who was just 16 when she won Olympic gold in 2002, tweeted this:
A lot of times when we talk about athletes and “peaking” has to do with the belief that there is a right time to be at your best, and if you plan carefully enough you can be at your peak at that moment, and that moment should also be at most important competition of your life. Like the Olympics. Sometimes you can. And sometimes you’re going to be at your absolute best when you’re 17 a year before the Olympics, as Medvedeva was. This can be hard for all involved—fans, coaches, and of course, the athletes themselves—to accept but it doesn’t make it any less true.
A lot of U.S. figure skating’s hopes have been pinned onto Liu. Since 2007, the U.S. women have won just one individual medal in world and Olympic competition—Ashley Wagner’s silver in 2016—and it’s difficult not to be excited by Liu’s talent and what it can mean for women’s program. But because of age minimums, Liu won’t be able to compete until the 2021–2022 Olympic season. That’s a long wait for a skater who seems to only be a year or two away from her peak. Will Liu have the kind of senior career that everyone is hoping for? Will she even be a factor by the time the opportunity rolls around? Will the age minimum that’s currently keeping her out of most competitions allow her to develop safely, or will it just mean that she’ll never get her shot when she was at her best?
Timing is everything for athletes. And sometimes the right time is when you’re 15, even if the rules dictate otherwise.