Russian Baby Ballerina Phenomenon, Some Thoughts

Note: This was originally posted at FSU, right after the World Team Trophy.

So now that the season has finished out at the WTT, and meanwhile there’s been time for the results of Worlds to settle in, I’ve been thinking lately about the results of the Russian ladies. When it comes down to it, how many people really thought they’d go down to two spots, that Adelina Sotnikova and Liza T wouldn’t get the job done? Except that I’m thinking now maybe we all should’ve seen it coming. Especially American viewers, who saw this happen in our own ladies field four short years ago.
Remember 2008, when our age-eligible ladies couldn’t keep three spots for the life of them, and meanwhile Rachael Flatt, Caroline Zhang, & Mirai Nagasu were sweeping the podium at Junior Worlds? If only those pesky age rules hadn’t kept them out, we all said. All the older girls better retire right now, we said, because they’d never go to Worlds again; these three ladies would take over. Their Junior Worlds scores, scored at Senior Worlds, would’ve kept three spots. And perhaps if the age rules hadn’t been in place, they would indeed have preserved the spots. That year.
Things weren’t quite the same at 2009 Worlds, because only Rachael Flatt made it there, and also she actually did pretty well, and Nationals bronze medalist Caroline Zhang was still doing well enough it was assumed at the time that had she gone, she could’ve made the top eight. But given how she nose-dived the following season, one wonders how sure of that we can now be. Maybe we should’ve paid more attention to Mirai Nagasu, who took an early fall(though how easy that was to forget the following year, when she kicked herself back up).
Even without this example, we knew there were reasons for the Adelinas and Lizas of the world to struggle as they got older and grew. Not just physically, either; now they’re old enough to feel the pressure too. Of course they didn’t even need to third berth for them both to make Worlds, though that was simply because Alissa Czisny had a better Nationals than Alena Leonova. But it all panned out the same: hyped as the salvation of Russian ladies before they were old enough to do it, a trio of them already designated as the team for the next Olympics, then when they had the magic birthday couldn’t do it.
Unless one wants to think Julia Lipniskaia would’ve done better; since another difference is that all three of the American baby ballerinas became eligible in the same year. But her own track record this season makes that far from certain.
And what now? Two of the American trio proved the US representatives in Vancouver, and at the moment it seems likely enough two of Liza, Adelina, and Julia will likewise represent Russia in Sochi(but it looked not unlike for the American trio at this time last quadrennium, before Caroline plummeted). It’s an interesting question whether any of them can medal, especially since replace Joannie Rochette with Carolina Kostner and that situation too is eerily similar; if all three of her, Yu-Na, & Mao skate clean or even close to it, and is it even possible for anyone else to medal? Though Mirai came in 4th, so if one of them blows it will may see a Russian girl on the podium at Sochi.
But afterwards? There are many Russian girls all ready to pull a Gracie Gold, more than there were here in America, and I wouldn’t be so quick to write Leonova off absolutely. Three years later, Rachael Flatt is gone partly because she had other priorities, but also because of injuries, Caroline Zhang looked like she was back in 2012, but this last season not so much, and Mirai Nagasu has hung in somewhat, but is now coming off a second Nationals disaster in a row and a deeply uncertain future. None of them are likely to make it to Sochi. When we got three spots back in time for the Olympics, it didn’t involve any of the baby ballerinas. If they have to rely on their baby ballerinas, Russia could be in for a long and hard quadrennium after next season.

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