Opining on 2018 U.S. Championships (part 1): Making sense of criteria

The week that was the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships was crazy, to say the least. We all expected there to be drama coming into the competition, with once-every-four-years Olympic spots on the line, but I don't think I've ever seen the level of stunnery (yes, I made that up) that we got in San Jose this year. But with four weeks to go until the Olympics, Team USA is set - and exactly like four years ago, we are left with a controversial decision.

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Criteria, criteria, criteria
The biggest debate over the weekend was the selection of the men's team for the Olympics. Ross Miner, who finished with the silver here, was not selected for the Olympic team, whereas Adam Rippon, who made two major errors at the end of his free skate and finished fourth, was. A very similar decision happened four years ago, when Ashley Wagner was put on the Sochi team over Mirai Nagasu, who finished third over Wagner's fourth at 2014 Nationals.

The decision in 2014 was based on a look at the respective skaters' competitive histories, and US Figure Skating has clarified its criteria even more over the past four seasons (see graphic above). Much like how it is in other countries' skating federations (including Japan), there is a set list of competitions that they look at, divided into different tiers based on importance and recency. USFS President Sam Auxier noted in the press conferences that the selection committee looks at results, including placement, scores, head-to-heads, and momentum of results.

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Based on the criteria that was set out, there is a strong case to be made for Rippon (and Vincent Zhou) to be on the team over Miner. Miner, in effect, only had the U.S. Championships finish on his side (and by 0.68 and 6.17 over Zhou and Rippon, respectively), whereas Zhou and Rippon have stronger scores over the season internationally, including head-to-head wins over Miner. And for Rippon, the kicker may have been his qualification for the Grand Prix Final (one of only six men in the world to do so) - he was the only one of those three who made it there.

In the end, the decision was 11-1 in the 13-person committee, with one person in the committee presumably abstaining from the vote.

What is still unclear is how the selection committee weighed each of the events and each of the tiers. Had there been a numerical weighting, the decision would have been even more clear-cut, whichever way it turned out. But so far, they have chosen to not provide weights, likely because of the complications of things like relative level of competitors at different competitions, relative differences in scoring among competitions, and anomalies (e.g., Zhou was the only skater of this group to be at Junior Worlds last season).


For the women, there were some who noted that the criteria usage wasn't consistent between the men's selection and the women's selection, specifically citing the fact that Wagner, once again in fourth, was not chosen over Bradie Tennell, who was relying more-or-less on her three competitions this season and was less accomplished last season than Wagner was.

But here is where competition scores come into play - Tennell's 23+ point finish over Wagner here and the fact that she has the highest international scores of the season were the biggest factors in her selection. In a lot of ways, it likely came down to Karen Chen as the one most likely to have been bumped for Wagner. Whatever you think of the results at the U.S. Championships the past two seasons, looking at placements and numbers alone, Chen had every head-to-head and criterion over Wagner except for the Grand Prix this season.

The big difference between Wagner and Rippon is the Grand Prix Final berth. Had Wagner qualified for the Final this season, she would have been the only American woman to do it, and it may have been enough to push her over Chen for that third spot, especially given that Chen beat Wagner by only 2.40 here. But Wagner's injury at Skate America pushed her to withdraw, and she never even stood a chance against Chen based on the results.

Luckily for everyone, the decisions for the one pair spot and three dance spots in PyeongChang were much more clear cut. We really weren't in the mood for more drama.