6:21 PM EDT, March 31, 2012
Half beyond awful. That was Alissa Czisny in the World Figure Skating Championships that ended Saturday in Nice, France.
Half quite good. That was Ashley Wagner in the free skate.
That makes it too bad Wagner struggled at the start of Thursday's short program, because it probably cost her a medal.
Reigning U.S. champion Wagner finished fourth, following her 8th in the short with a 3rd in the free skate, gaining back about half the points she had lost Thursday to bronze medalist Akiko Suzuki of Japan.
Carolina Kostner of Italy won by 5.66 points over Alena Leonova of Russia. Suzuki was 3.6 behind Leonova, with Wagner 3.91 from third.
Czisny, U.S. champion in 2009 and 2011 and second this year, wound up 22nd after what may have been the worst free skate ever by a skater with her talent and record.
She fell five times in four minutes. She landed no clean triple jumps.
She had fallen twice in the short program and finished 16th. Seven falls in a competition must be some kind of record.
Other than the two occasions when U.S. women failed to advance from a qualifying round, 1993 and 1994, the lowest previous worlds finish was 19th by Christine Haigler in 1963.
Only a season ago, Czisny had won the Grand Prix Final and finished fifth at worlds. She was barely two points from the podium last year and 56 points back Saturday.
"I’m confused as to what has happened here," Czisny said.
Now she is at the same crossroads as in 2010, when a 10th place at the nationals serving as unofficial Olympic trials led Czisny to consider retiring before she decided instead to leave a longtime coach and had the best season of her career.
If Czisny, 24, decides to keep chasing an Olympic white whale, she may find some hope in the odyssey Carolina Kostner, 25, endured before becoming Italy's first world singles champion Saturday.
A year after winning her first of four world medals, bronze in 2005, Kostner finished a sloppy ninth at the 2006 Olympics and 12th at the worlds. A year after winning her second world medal, silver in 2008, Kostner was 12th at worlds, a year later 16th at the 2010 Olympics, each time with abysmal free skates.
"Nothing really changed," Kostner insisted. "It has been 10 years coming for me. Each season gave me something to learn. I guess it was just my time."
Kostner has won the triple crown this season: Grand Prix Final, European Championship (her fourth), World Championship.
Beginning as a skater with the energy and charm of a sprightly fawn, Kostner slowly turned those assets into an elegance too often despoiled by gross mistakes. The issue was getting herself under control, which she did by eliminating a jump that consistently proved her undoing, the triple lutz.
Other than Mao Asada, who won in 2010 with triple axels -- the most difficult jump done by women - you have to go back 20 years to find the last world champion without the triple lutz, the second most difficult jump. But the new scoring system makes skipping it a wise move, especially since it allowed Kostner the confidence to execute everything else and take advantage of what have been for years the best and most inspired music choices of any skater - this season, excerpts from a Shostakovich piano trio and two movements of a Mozart piano concerto.
Yes, Kostner did only five triple jumps, turning a planned sixth into a double. Yes, the judges were kind to her in a short program when she was third despite doubling a triple loop. But there was little doubt she deserved the title.
And there also was little doubt Wagner deserved higher free skate component scores, the marks judges use to reward their favorites no matter what happens on the ice. But she admitted to having concentrated on nuts and bolts rather than embellishment.
Her free skate was not flawless, with errors on two jumping passes, but it still earned the second highest technical scores.
“I’m through the roof right now," Wagner said. "I was so nervous going into it. I think I managed my nerves very well. I approached everything one step at a time. I cut out a few pieces of choreography because I was focusing on the technical elements. I did what I needed to do, and it’s huge for me.”
Wagner had taken responsibility - too much of it - for having lost the third U.S. women's spot at worlds in 2008, when she finished 16th. (The other two skaters were as much to blame, since their 7th and 10th places also added up to more than the combined 13 points needed for three.)
Saturday, needing to finish 12th or better to keep the second spot jeopardized by Czisny's implosion, Wagner left no doubt.
That's the good part.
The bad part is the U.S. will now go a fifth season with only two women's spots, and its women's world medal drought has been extended to a new record of six seasons. The longest previous gap since World War II, after which women's skating boomed in the United States, came in the three seasons following the 1961 plane crash that killed the entire elite of U.S. skating.
It isn't only that the rest of the world, notably Japan and Russia, is producing more talent. (Wait until the next group of Russian women are old enough for senior worlds.) The U.S. is producing much less.
Added to the dismal men's performance, it leaves a lot of unanswered questions about U.S. Figure Skating's leadership because the drop in results has reduced the general U.S. public's interest in the sport to an all-time low.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC