Selection process under microscope

BOSTON -- Look, no matter the selection criteria for an Olympic team, someone is going to go home very, very unhappy.

You train years and years -- often the majority of your life -- to become an Olympian, and then your dreams end in an instant when you finish mere hundredths of a second behind someone else. Or you finish ahead of another athlete only to have an "impartial" panel vote send that other person.

Either way, there's no other way to describe it: It sucks.

The positive in choosing teams on performance only at Olympics trials is that if you miss the team, you have no one else to blame. You weren't cheated -- you simply weren't fast enough or didn't score high enough on the day it mattered most. The positive to also considering past performances in the selection process, as well, is that it allows room to send the best team to the Olympics, not just the athletes who had a good day.

"I am the prime example," Ashley Wagner said Sunday. "You should not be defined by one bad performance. And for me, when I look back on my career, this one horrible performance does not define me, and U.S. Figure Skating has given me the opportunity to go into the Olympics and make everybody forget about this performance here, which I am fully prepared and excited to do.

"To have full and multiple criteria is the best way to decide who is best prepared to be on that Olympic team."

Of course Wagner felt that way Sunday. She finished fourth in the nationals championships Saturday with what she termed an "embarrassing" performance, but U.S. Figure Skating named her to the team and left off third-place finisher and 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu.

"If you look at Ashley Wagner's performance over the past year, she has the top credentials of any of our athletes," U.S. Figure Skating president Patricia St. Peter said. "It was that analysis -- it was an objective analysis -- that was considered in applying our guidelines."

Wagner is a two-time national champion who, other than this week, has been the country's best skater the past two years. She was a leader in the team competition test events and will help the U.S.'s medal chances in Sochi. She also is an articulate and thoughtful woman who will be an excellent representative for the country.

More importantly, Wagner helped the United States earn an additional Olympic spot at last year's world championships. Had she and new U.S. champ Gracie Gold not finished fifth and sixth, there would have been no third berth for the U.S. to even debate.

So I would have chosen Wagner for the team, as well. But I also would have selected Nagasu, naming her to the team over 15-year-old second-place finisher Polina Edmunds.

Granted, Nagasu has not skated all that well since finishing fourth at age 16 in Vancouver at the 2010 Olympics, but she skated wonderfully here this week, with two mistake-free routines -- the only skater to do so. That she did so without a coach is even more impressive and demonstrates her current mental toughness and determination.

Nagasu's status as a past Olympian is not considered as part of the selection criteria, but it should. She's been to the Olympics. She's performed very well and knows what it takes.

Edmunds, meanwhile, has never skated above the junior level in international competition. U.S. Figure Skating didn't even know until very late Saturday night whether her junior-level competitions would count toward the International Skating Union's eligibility requirements to compete in the Olympics. That it had not considered that beforehand makes you wonder what it was thinking about.

Veteran skating coach Frank Carroll describes Edmunds as the "future of U.S. figure skating." Edmunds has a great backstory for Sochi, as well (her mother is from Russia), and she could turn in a great, perhaps medal-winning performance. It would be difficult and controversial to keep her off the team.

But I still would take Nagasu over her. U.S. Figure Skating looks at the past year in addition to the past week. It should also look at past Olympics.

There is a similar issue in the pairs team selection. Caydee Denney and John Coughlin finished less than three-tenths of a point behind Felicia Zhang and Nate Bartholomay on Saturday. They have greater past success (they were the 2012 national champs), but because of a hip injury that sidelined Coughlin for part of last year, they missed the national and world championships that are used in the selection criteria.

So U.S. Figure Skating named Zhang and Batholomay to the team ahead of Denney and Coughlin. Is that right? Maybe. But does it send the best pairs team? I'm not sure, because Denney and Coughlin have the better track record.

This issue actually will help U.S. Figure Skating by drawing some attention to the sport. It's not Tonya and Nancy, but it is controversial and will give fans something to talk about other than the NFL playoffs or the A-Rod suspension.

Wagner said the greatest pressure is in just making the Olympic team, which is one reason she struggled here. She's wrong about that. The pressure now escalates for her to skate well enough in Sochi to prove to everyone that she belonged on the team instead of Nagasu.

Selecting a team based on past performance and not simply one competition is a good approach in sending the  best athletes to the Olympics. The challenge is making sure you still pick the best team.

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