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THE GAMES ARE ON: In women's ice skating, age is everything

By Sten Spinella
On February 6, 2014

  • Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford of Canada compete in the team pairs short program figure skating competition at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. AP

Women's figure skating is one of the most prominent Winter Olympic events, yet the athletes who represent their various countries are the youngest of any sport.
For these skaters, age is paramount twofold. One: the age of a skater dictates how many Olympics they will be able to take part in, and two: since a large percentage of the skaters are not adults (both legally and mentally), they depend on parents and outside sources to sustain the confidence and mental capacity needed to stay competitive in the grueling sport.
Take 15-year-old Russian Olympian Julia Lipnitskaia. A two-time Russian national silver medalist and the hope of the Russian figure skating community, she is the age of an average high school freshman, and yet, in only six years, she will already be considered old for her sport.
The reality of women's figure skating is a limited window for success. This brings added pressure among the skaters, and coaches begin grooming talent at exceedingly young ages.
Delaware is a state known for its figure skating prowess - in the 1984 games there were eight competing skaters from Delaware. In recent years, though, the Skating Club of Wilmington and the University of Delaware have not had the same presence in the Olympics. Their solution was to reach deeper and younger into their junior skating (usually ages 9-15) reserves and to breed these skaters to become champions.
The age of the average skater has also given parents a larger role in their development. There is a stigma to the "skating parent," which the Boston Globe detailed in an article on Jan. 11 of this year:
"Behind every would-be Olympic figure skater is the Skating Parent, who acts as chauffeur, accountant, manager, nagger, and cheerleader. For years, such parents would sit on cold, metal seats, praying and applauding during high-stakes competitions in which a two-minute performance can make or break a skater's ranking."
Often starting at ages under five years, parents are the ones who buy the ice time, the skates, the costumes, pay for the skates to be sharpened, drive their child to the rink, and, in increasingly prevalent cases, home school their child. Parents are heavily invested in the process, which can be positive or negative, depending on the parent/child. Parents also pay for the coaches, choreographers, off-ice time, personal trainers, and, occasionally, sports psychologists.
The 22-year-old Ashley Wagner was the U.S. national champion of figure skating in both 2012 and 2013. Sochi could possibly be her last Olympic games. Nationals in the United States determine who will be sent to the Olympics, and it is usually the top-three-placed skaters in the competition who do so. This year, Wagner caused controversy when, although she finished fourth, the judges picked her over third-place Mirai Nagasu. This decision is justified by Wagner's more consistent performances, yet there is a popular belief that the judges are giving her one last shot, recognizing her time constraints as well as the remaining time for Nagasu, who is 20 years of age.
The 11-year-old Olivia Gibbons, a once promising skater, fell off the map, and was detailed in a story written in Boston Magazine, a story which is typical for other women like she who are Olympic hopefuls. Here is an excerpt from the article:
"The parents of such young skaters are often the ones for whom Olympic glory is most appealing. The result can be an unhealthy loss of perspective. Increasingly, they homeschool their kids to give them more time at the rink, which means young skaters develop a sense of their self-worth almost entirely from how well they perform for judges. Many families are also choosing to move their kids long distances for the sake of better coaching, sometimes even separating their families to do so. Olivia Gibbons's mother, for example, changed jobs and moved with Olivia away from her son and husband. Along with such psychological and social sacrifices are the physical costs of serious elite training, including stress fractures and eating disorders. Simply put, the promise of competitive figure skating -- that unlikely chance at Olympic glory -- is often outweighed by the rigors of reality."
When watching the Olympics it is important to recognize the difficulties and hardships of women's figure skating, as well as the tender age of the competitors.

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