Controversy defines ice skating trials

Excitement is growing leading up to the Winter Olympic Games, beginning next month in Russia as the U.S. Olympic Trials continue for the myriad of sports to be featured in Sochi.

One of the most appealing aspects of the Olympics is knowing the years of dedication and hard work behind every athlete in the Games. The competition is also meant to be a bastion of fairness and justice, when the world comes together under the flag of sportsmanship and peace.

But if you watched the US Figure Skating Championships (and Olympic trials) over the weekend you may have been surprised when Ashley Wagner, who finished fourth, was given a spot on the U.S. Olympic team while the third place finisher, Mirai Nagasu,was sent home disappointed.

The U.S. Figure Skating Association has the discretion to make such a ruling, and “consider an athlete’s body of work.” So in their deliberations, the association opted for Wagner, who recently placed third in an international competition over Nagasu, the fourth-place finisher in the 2010 Olympics.

Since the weekend competition, there has been some speculation that the committee may have chosen a particularly attractive, marketable athlete over the one who happened to perform better on that given day.

For a sport that on one hand is so steeped in grace and artistry, there remains an underlying climate of favoritism and even unfairness.

Some would argue that if nerves got the better of Wagner during the national championships, how will she hold up under the bright lights, pressure and scrutiny of the Olympic ice?

Others would say that one bad day should not spoil a promising athlete’s chances at international greatness.

And though the Olympic nominations are well within the guidelines set forth by the Figure Skating Association, the decision must be hard to swallow for Nagasu.

Just a few short weeks of time will tell; and millions around the world will be watching. Figure skating is one of the most glamorous and popular events in the winter Olympics; a great performance can launch a professional career, while a mediocre outing could send an athlete spiraling into obscurity.

This is not the first controversy in figure skating history, and not nearly the worst – remember Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan?

While these trials may be disappointing to some, the outcome is far from criminal, and the Games will go on, albeit without an undoubtedly disappointed Nagasu.

Sports teach athletes many lessons, including how to handle failure and disappointment. The true test of character is not in the falling down, but rather in what you do next.

Ironically, Ashley Wagner is heading to the Olympics in spite of a number of falls. The U.S. Figure Skating Committee is banking on this popular young athlete rising to the challenge.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at Her column appears on Tuesdays.