Figure skaters still have Olympic dreams despite Kamila Valieva controversy

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Wein and his ice dancing partner, Angela Ling, recall the joy and optimism of learning to skate when they were 4 years old. After a solid training session, their lifelong dreams of competing in the Olympics didn’t seem so far away. Wein and Ling, one of the top young pairings in the United States, have continued to aim for the sport’s biggest stage even as their no-holds-barred vision of Olympic figure skating changed this winter.

“It’s not pretty,” said Wein, who qualified for the World Junior Championships with Ling in Sofia, Bulgaria later this year. “You don’t want the potential next generation to see that and kind of be alienated from the sport and kind of repelled by some of the things that are going on.”

Wein, 20, and Ling, 17, will continue to pursue the Olympics, but fear the controversy could discourage skaters from taking up the sport. They visited the rink on their only day off this week to provide the kids with the fun and encouragement that allowed the duo’s passion to blossom.

The Games officially ended with the closing ceremonies on Sunday, but across the country American skaters are still flocking to local rinks. training for local, regional and national competitions; and hoping that one day they could also perform on the biggest stage in the world.

Inside the Detroit Skating Club in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, 11-year-old Emelia Nemirovsky was on the ice practicing triple jumps with one of her trainers. The banners of 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski and 2014 Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White hung overhead as Nemirovsky glided down the ice.

Nemirovksy’s mother and grandmother, who are both Russian, put her on the ice and started teaching her to skate when she was just 4 years old with a chubby face. Now, the sixth-grader trains 16 hours a week at the Metro-Detroit club and is part of the United States National Figure Skating Development Team at the intermediate level.

“I love looking forward to the Olympics,” she said. “The skaters really push me and want me to achieve this goal.”

She watched every moment of this year’s competition, studying the routines and dissecting how the skaters moved with the music. She had never seen anything quite like the women’s free skate, in which Valieva succumbed to crippling pressure and the joy was entirely sucked out of the arena.

“It was a disaster, honestly,” she said. “It’s not something you want to admire.”

Women’s competition in Beijing has been a particularly hot topic in skating clubs, with much of the discussion focusing on the role of coaches and Valieva’s vulnerability.

“Normally figure skating isn’t like that,” said Erin Biederman, 14, of Franklin, Michigan. “In competitions, he is normally very supportive.”

Even with all the drama surrounding this year’s women’s figure skating competition, Biederman, who is striving to qualify for the U.S. national junior championships, says it hasn’t changed her attitude towards the sport or her future goals.

“I still want to go to the Olympics,” she said.

The Winter Games every four years represent the culmination of a journey, which includes years of training, competition and perseverance. The process can be difficult for any skater. In December 2018, Ling, from Ontario, posted her profile on a skating website looking for a dance partner willing to move anywhere to pursue her Olympic dreams. She eventually found Wein and settled in Rockville.

As the pair have risen through the sporting ranks, no detail, on or off the ice, has been too small. Coaches scrutinized their diets, knowing that a single mistake could end their Olympic goals. They were therefore particularly frustrated that Valieva was allowed to compete after testing positive for the banned substance trimetazidine.

But after seeing Valieva place fourth and cry as the coaches berated her, Wein and Ling were struck by the pressure Valieva exerted. Ling also felt concerned as she saw the medal-winning Russians – Anna Shcherbakova (gold) and Alexandra Trusova (silver) – express their displeasure.

“You don’t want younger kids to see it, like, ‘Oh, they won the Olympics, but they’re still upset. So what should they expect?’” Ling said. “Nothing of all this was good.

“There are a lot of problems in skating. But this one really pushed him and people saw it and are upset about it. Hopefully some things will change.

Sunday is usually the day Wein and Ling get away, but the pair arrived early at the rink for an 11 a.m. session. They carried clipboards full of paperwork as they led a group of 25 youngsters through beginner skating lessons. When Wein and Ling asked the children to skate backwards, most crossed the ice. A boy continued to fall, however, until Ling and Wein guided him to the opposite wall.

“I hope the next generation doesn’t turn away from the sport because they think it’s unfair,” Wein said, “or they just don’t want to be a part of it.”

Most coaches didn’t notice a difference in the skaters’ goals, noting that the United States offers more support and autonomy in development than in Russia, where skaters often begin their Olympic training when they are children.

Shirley Hughes, a Denver-based coach who trained U.S. Olympian Ashley Wagner, worries young skaters will feel pressured to replicate Valieva’s tricky moves and jumps. Valieva was the first woman to land a quad at the Olympics.

“That’s what worries me: they’ll be like, ‘What’s the point of trying because they’re not going to pick me anyway? ‘” Hughes said. “I tell them they can go their own way and they can do the best they can and not worry about the quads.”

Audrey Weisiger, a veteran coach at the Fairfax Ice Arena in Virginia, believes interest in skating will persist. During a recent children’s class, she asked the group about the Olympics.

“There’s a big competition coming up,” Weisiger recalls telling the kids. “Aren’t you excited?”

“Yes, yes, Mrs. Audrey,” they replied.

“Okay,” Weisiger said. “How do you call this?”

“The Cardinal Classic,” they shouted, referring to their upcoming Northern Virginia competition.

“Most kids who skate in America skate because they love it,” Weisiger said. “American skating schools, we are an open house. You come in, you register, you pay your lesson fees and you skate. This will not change.

Kayla Ruble in Detroit contributed to this report.

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