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Danger signs

ST. PAUL, Minn. --The ladies competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships was billed as a "battle of the ages," but the so-called battle turned into a rout. The kids blew the oldsters away, and the 13,000 fans in St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center couldn't have been happier to witness the evolution.

Mirai Nagasu, a feathery 14-year-old from Arcadia, Calif., survived a fall on her opening double axel and gathered herself to land six triple jumps, including a gutsy triple lutz-triple toe combination that she landed immediately after her fall, to become the second youngest U.S. champion, 34 days older than was Tara Lipinski when she won in 1997.

Second place went to another Californian, 15-year-old Rachael Flatt, who landed seven clean triples, including a flawless triple lutz-triple toe combo, to amass 125.82 points in the long program, the most of any skater on this night of surprises. Sixteen-year-old Ashley Wagner from Alexandria, Va., another first-year senior, placed third, just .17 behind Flatt. Wagner, too, did a triple-triple -- a rare thing in these championships in years past. Fourth place went to yet another 14-year-old appearing in her first senior nationals competition, Caroline Zhang, a 4-foot-11 tot from Irvine, Calif. Of these top four finishers, only Wagner is old enough to compete at the World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden, in March. (By ISU rules, a skater must have turned 15 by July 1, 2007 -- Flatt misses the cutoff by 20 days.)

What happened to last year's medalists? Age and infirmity. Such is the state of figure skating in 2008, where female competitors seem to grow older by dog years. The defending U.S. champion, Kimmie Meissner, who won the World Championships in 2006 as a 16-year old, was posing as the grand old dame of the championships at the ripe old age of 18. But she's grown several inches since 2005, when she became the first U.S. woman to land a triple axel since Tonya Harding, and no longer can land her triple axel or even her triple-triples with consistency. Certainly she was unable to do so Saturday night, falling three times before landing her first triple and finishing a distant and shattering seventh. Emily Hughes, last year's silver medalist, was unable to compete in St. Paul because of a hip injury, and the 2007 bronze medalist, Alissa Czisny, had just as rough a night as Meissner, finishing ninth.

So the torch has been passed. All the torches. A new generation has stepped to the fore and, skating fans and officials are hoping that Nagasu, Wagner, Flatt and Zhang will scratch and claw away at one another through the next Olympic cycle or two, creating rivalries to match the great rivalries of the past: Debi Thomas vs. Jill Trenary. Michelle Kwan vs. Tara Lipinski. Michelle Kwan vs. Sarah Hughes. Developing personalities. And generally infusing figure skating with the buzz that's been missing since, well, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, or the pairs skating judging scandal at the Salt Lake City Olympics. A little cloak and dagger action and, presto, figure skating's television ratings, which have been in the toilet, will be right back up there with the Super Bowl's, where they belong.

But I have another scenario, and it's not nearly so rosy. Because skating's new scoring system rewards and encourages outlandish spin positions that put incredible strain on the spine, because junior skaters are now doing all the same jumps as seniors and because of the wear and tear each year of jumping imparts on their young, growing bodies, I fear that the girls who so charmed us in St. Paul in 2008 will, by 2010, be replaced by a fresh new crop of faces.

Women's figure skating has become gymnastics on ice, where the supple young bodies of 14 and 15 year olds simply can do more tricks at higher speeds than the body of a woman who's gone through puberty. And those supple young bodies break down. Under the old 6.0 system, judges could use the second mark -- the presentation mark -- to reward the elegance and style of a Michelle Kwan, a Dorothy Hamill, a Janet Lynn. To keep artistic, athletic women at the top of the podium. No longer. And while it's fun to see the new kids strut their stuff, something fundamental about the beauty of figure skating is being lost.

Three-time U.S. men's champion Johnny Weir actually put it very well on the eve of these championships. "Caroline Zhang is a very talented young girl," Weir said. He might have also been referring to Nagasu, who looks at home clutching a Mickey Mouse doll, or Flatt, who has a mouthful of braces. "To me, that's what she is," Weir continued. "A young girl that I see carrying around a Hello Kitty notebook and pens. Right now, in the U.S., we have babies competing. They don't have the magnetism that draws in not only the young girls and middle-aged women, but also the husbands of those wives and the young teenaged guys who want to watch a hot girl skating around in a short dress."

Let us enjoy watching these young ladies while we can. Because, if history is any guide, they have the shelf life of beautiful mayflies.

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