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Sarah Explains the Finer Sports

Figure skating with sarcasm, statistics, and rapturous adoration.

The Finer Sports Have Moved!

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

You might have noticed that this blog has been quiet for a few weeks. I've been busy elsewhere - Twitter, Tumblr, another guest appearance at The Judges' Table - and watching a lot of skating, but I haven't been blogging. Partially, that was because of work commitments that forced me to backburner my hobbies, but mostly, it's because I'm moving on from SportsBlog to a domain of my own. Just in time for me to wax lyrical about Russian and Japanese Nationals, I'm proud to announce that . . . is live!

I'll still bring all the sarcasm, statistical analysis, and rapturous adoration you've come to expect, mostly about figure skating but with forays into other sports and the occasional off-topic musings. I'll keep the SportsBlog site up as long as they'll let me, although I'll gradually copy my old posts to the new domain. I hope you'll follow me to my new internet home, and keep on reading and sharing!

See you at!

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Five Ways Sports Are Helping Me Deal with These Election Results

Like a lot of Americans, I'm upset and scared right now. That's to be expected: no matter who is elected in this country, approximately half of us feel like we've lost. I can't imagine that any regular reader of this blog is surprised that I'm to the left of the political spectrum, at least by US standards. It also shouldn't be a surprise that my mind went to sports metaphors fast, as a way of getting my head around what had happened and thinking about how to proceed with my life. As a matter of fact, the sports metaphors started long before Tuesday night and were a constant for me, and not just because I never entirely stop writing blog posts in my head. So here's a list - in no particularly meaningful order - of what's been running through my head since Election Day.

1. No matter the outcome, there's a lot of good in the world.

I feel it's important to put this one first, since a lot of people in my social circles are treating Trump's victory like it's the end of the world. I think that a lot of what he plans to do is terrible, not just for me personally but for the nation and world as a whole, but despair is the worst emotional state to settle into when the future looks bleak. Despair makes you feel like there's nothing to be done and nothing to fight for. I've been lucky to find a lot of protection from that way of thinking in the wake of Tuesday's results. I watched the returns come in with a person I care about a lot, offsetting the dread with martinis and Mexican food. When the writing was on the wall, my friends started texting, and it brightened my mood to see how many people wanted to reach out for mutual support. There were even some victories on the political front, as Tammy Duckworth unseated Mark Kirk as U.S. Senator and Susana Mendoza became the first Hispanic person and first woman of color to hold the office of Illinois Comptroller. (If that sounds like cold comfort, know that the Comptroller actually has a lot of power around here.)

In the morning, one of my friends messaged me to note that the sun had still risen. She was still feeling down, though, so I started sending her links to my favorite figure skating programs, the ones that I watch when I'm sad. The list got long enough that she compiled them into a YouTube playlist that is now my happy place. The conversation reminded me that few things have the power to restore my mood like a great figure skating performance. I've put the playlist on shuffle and have been dipping into it all week. It's utterly biased, putting my irrational preferences ahead of point totals and outcomes (and occasionally ahead of all common sense). You can watch it here.

2. Once you're a fan, there's a lot you're willing to excuse.

I'm not hugely into hockey, but I have a number of friends who love it enough to suck me in once in awhile. Many of them are (or used to be) fans of the Chicago Blackhawks, and most would complain every so often about how racist the team logo is. Some were bothered enough to refuse to buy merchandise with the stereotyped Native American chief on it, but none were bothered enough to quit following the team. When news broke about the rape allegations against Patrick Kane, and the team's dubious handling of the situation followed, it became the tipping point for a number of my friends. Most hockey fans in Chicago stood by the team, though. Their enjoyment of hockey triumphed over their philosophical opposition to racially insensitive mascots and even over their deep horror and outrage about rape. In my neighborhood, more than 80% of the votes for President went to Hillary Clinton, but the ugly mug of a cartoon Indian flies high over the bar at the end of my street. Most Chicagoans' principles end where the prospect of another Stanley Cup begins.

The same went for political allegiances in this election. Both major Presidential candidates had giant skeletons in their closets, past behaviors that their opposition perceived as unforgivable. Journalists worked painstakingly to exonerate Hillary Clinton when the Trump campaign painted her as a pathological liar with a history of criminal financial dealings and deleted emails. They worked equally hard to chronicle Trump's record of bad real estate deals and unethical business practices, not to mention continual reminders of his racist and sexist comments. Then, to ensure the most direct possible parallel with hockey, woman after woman came forward to accuse Trump of sexual assault and harassment. For all of the mud slung and the research hours logged, none of this seemed to sway many American voters. Most of the anti-Clinton crowd had hated her for years as a symbol of liberal establishment politics, corrupt cronyism, and empty rhetoric. The Americans opposed to Trump would have despised him for his regressive economic policies, semi-coherent bluster, and The Celebrity Apprentice even without the bigotry and bankruptcies. After Trump won, think pieces proliferated about the sad confirmation that racism and sexism aren't deal-breakers for most American voters. But any sports fan could have told you that.

3. We know we live in a bubble, but we don't realize how small it is.

If you spend a lot of time on figure skating social media, you know that everyone loves Ashley Wagner and is lukewarm at best toward Gracie Gold. You'd be forgiven for wondering why USFSA even manufactures the rivalry, when it's so clear that Ashley is America's sweetheart. But when you attend a live event where both are competing, the bubble bursts. You're surrounded by tween skaters and fans without Twitter accounts who idolize Gracie and barely register Ashley. Each skater resonates with a specific population of fans, with so little overlap that the two only notice each other when they're all in the same arena. (There's another metaphor here, one that speaks to this Mirai Nagasu true believer, but we'll set that aside, because my love for sports underdogs could not translate more poorly to dark horse primary challengers or third party candidates.)

My Facebook and Twitter feeds were (and, in the aftermath, still are) as uniformly liberal as they are uniformly pro-Ashley. There are a handful of libertarians, but by and large, even they were imploring people to hold their noses and vote for Hillary. I come from a family of old-school, big-city Democrats, so I don't even have that One Racist Uncle everyone else talks about. Throughout the election cycle, I made jokes about how lucky I was to be this sheltered, but it bothered me, because I haven’t always been. One of my ex-girlfriends had staunchly Republican parents, and her dad and I used to get into it about politics. The funny thing about it was, her dad and I were both conflict-avoidant by nature and nerdy about fact-checking, so our conversations were both abnormally civil and frequently interrupted while we looked up histograms of the Federal deficit. When my relationship ended, I obviously lost touch with my ex's family, and now, I miss having an intelligent person whose politics I totally disagree with in my life. We made each other reassess some of our beliefs - he softened on LGBTQ rights, I got more pragmatic about gun policy - and we made sure that neither of us got so stuck in our partisan bubbles that we internalized harmful nonsense.

The bubble had particularly thick walls in this election, and I think that's why most of blue-state America was so shocked when Trump won. The polls and the think pieces were on our side! Even Glenn Beck was voting for Hillary! The voices cautioning us otherwise were beyond our reach, or we declined to hear them. It's all too easy to retreat into elitist fairyland when literally no one you know lives anywhere else.

Or when you live in a city whose beloved baseball team has just won its first World Series in over a century. I'm no baseball fan; when the Cubs make the playoffs, I mostly count the days until I can ride the Red Line without getting beer spilled on me. But it was impossible, in those last couple of weeks, to keep from loving the Cubs a little - or to keep from assuming that everyone else in the world loved them as much as my fellow Chicagoans. My cousin, who lives in Cleveland, burst my Cubs bubble with a mournful response to the World Series results. Who knew there were so many Indians fans? And that they were as distraught about the pitching meltdown in game 7 as I was about Yuzuru Hanyu's short program at Skate Canada? The local Cubs mania had made all other baseball opinions invisible, just as the urban, liberal culture in the Chicago area had made the pro-Trump movement look faraway and small.

4. Don't let them shush you.

One of the few blemishes on my fabulous Skate America 2016 staycation weekend was a tweet from some fellow fans in the stands. My Twitter friends had been screaming and cheering all weekend, and some of their neighbors in the stands threatened to "report them to an usher" if they didn't shut up. I'm pretty sure the threat was empty - not least because the ushers seemed well aware that this was a sporting event and not an actual performance of The Nutcracker - but it reminded me that there's still an annoying divide in philosophies about how live skating should be enjoyed. I'm very much of the opinion that skating is an experience to be enjoyed loudly, with warm support for all the competitors, screams and standing ovations for the best performances, and an ear-splitting GANBARE!! for my favorite Japanese skaters. The athletes back me up on this, pumping up the crowd when we're not yelling and clapping enough for their liking. Fans' positive energy gives the skaters confidence, and making some noise helps the fans feel like we're part of something special.

Nonetheless, in response to behavior that would have seemed downright restrained at a Blackhawks or Cubs game, two women in my row spent the entire ladies' free skate shooting dirty looks at me and the friends I was sitting with, then moved to a different section during ice dance and pairs. When I started attending live skating events, almost a decade ago, I think there were more fans who expected silence during programs. Now, the few who remain are much more aggressive about shushing the rowdy majority. It's almost always older women who disapprove of skating fans who behave like they're watching sports, and they always seem to think that the young don't know how we're "supposed" to act. The cool thing is, the noisy younger fans seem to be winning over the older ones. I've befriended, and egged on, a fair number of loud and bawdy grannies who happened to be sitting nearby. And really, who are the current generation of grannies? Folks who followed the Grateful Dead around and protested the Vietnam War. The defiant younger fans are giving them permission to feel cool and part of something.

One of the most resonant moments of this election cycle, for me, was a mass shushing, and I can't help but connect my Skate America frustrations with it. At the Democratic National Convention, frustrated Bernie Sanders supporters persisted in drowning out the speakers with pro-Bernie slogans. By that point, it had been made clear to them that Sanders would not receive the nomination, and Sanders himself had counseled his supporters to conduct themselves with restraint. But the Sanders loyalists felt like their party was neglecting and sidelining them, and they fought back with their voices. Finally, well into the first night, Al Franken and Sarah Silverman had had enough, and they implored the Bernie shouters to tone it down, saying they were being ridiculous. At the time, I agreed with Franken and Silverman, because I thought the disruptions reflected badly on the Sanders contingent.

I've reconsidered since then, and not out of any illusion that Sanders could have succeeded where Clinton so narrowly failed. What I'm disturbed by is the arrogance of the Democratic establishment. After the primaries anointed Clinton, the Democratic leadership seemed to think they had a mandate to push a large portion of the party - a portion that is relatively young and radical - to quietly get in line and support Clinton. Many outright refused, putting in protest votes or simply staying home. Others complied, but without enthusiasm. Many of the most energized and most potentially influential Democrats felt marginalized by their own party, to the point where they didn't feel motivated to donate money or time. Shushing people is as bad in politics as it is in a figure skating arena and has much broader consequences. I don't think the Democrats' impulse to keep the rebels in line was the deciding factor in this election, and it might not even have been a major one. But it was a big contrast with the Trump campaign, which goaded its supporters into frenzied chants of "Lock her up." Maybe if the Democrats had let their left wing make some noise, they could have drowned out the hateful rhetoric. Or, better, learned something.

5. Write like you're running out of time.

Okay, so maybe I cribbed this one from Lin-Manuel Miranda. It's also something I learned from writing about sports, rather than from watching them. When I started this blog, I was afraid. I worried that my criticism would be perceived as too harsh, my affection for certain skaters would be perceived as too fawning, and worst of all, that my jokes would be perceived as less funny than I thought they were. The first few times I received negative responses to my writing, I almost crumbled. But for every negative note, I got a lot more words of encouragement. Over time, I learned how to write this blog in a way that's true to my perspective on the sport. When I contributed to The Judges' Table last week, I said some ballsy things in front of an audience that was new to my writing, and I got backlash - and not just for the opinions that I knew were hot takes. The weird thing was, the dissent felt good. The point of writing about anything you feel passionate about shouldn't be to garner universal agreement. It should be to get the idea out there, to get people to think and talk and question. When I see people respond to what I'm saying, even if their response is that I am horribly wrong about their fave and need to get some better taste, I know that I'm getting somewhere.

I didn’t put the same kind of courage and confidence into action during this election cycle. It’s easy for me, at this point, to say that I think Satoko Miyahara’s score at Skate Canada was right on target, even though I know that opinion will upset some people. But throughout the election, it was much more difficult for me to voice my objections to Hillary Clinton as a candidate, especially after she received the nomination. Just as I admire a lot about Miyahara’s skating, I admire a lot about Clinton’s career and political approach. But I have serious problems with her, problems that preceded her candidacy and intensified as her campaign went on.

I said nothing. I was trying to be a good Democrat and to promote the best possible option. Lots of Americans censored themselves for similar reasons, but my self-censorship was particularly shameful because I’m a writer. I have a platform here, and I have connections elsewhere that could have brought me a wider audience. I gave in to my old fear of negative attention, and to the impostor syndrome that tells me I’m not informed enough or interesting enough. I alone was not enough to sway this election, but I know I’m not the only person to toe the line when they shouldn’t have. Collectively, we would up reinforcing the illusion of a unified left and center in the United States, and that illusion bred a complacency that probably did play a strong role in Trump’s victory over Clinton.

When I created this blog, it was supposed to be about sports. I’ve used it before to touch on politics, though, and pretending that I’m just writing about ice skating has made it easier to draw in bigger issues that I wouldn’t be sure how to approach otherwise. It's that old Teddy Roosevelt line, proving itself true again: Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. If this is how I teach myself to become a more vocal and engaged citizen, that’s good for me, my community, my country, and the world. It’s a shot that I’m not going to throw away.

That doesn’t mean I’ll stop writing about figure skating. I have plenty to say about this weekend’s Trophée de France that has little to do with politics. (Nathan Chen! Gabrielle Daleman! Pretending Gilles/Poirier’s short dance twizzles didn’t happen!) My favorite sport is still the focus here, and always will be. My goal, instead, is to use what I’ve learned from writing this blog to have an impact elsewhere. It’s what I have, and it’s where I am.

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Rostelecom Cup 2016 Men's Recap: Just Have Fun Out There

It's Election Day in America, and I'm dealing with the stress the best way I know how - by watching figure skating. Yes, I'm aware that I skipped all of Skate Canada, although I didn't really: you can read my thoughts at The Judges' Table. I sparked controversy, and not just in the categories I expected! I also made a guest appearance in Maia and Alex Shibutani's Skate America vlog and would like to let the record state that I have since gotten the haircut and color that I desperately needed. (I'm just after the two-minute mark; I say words and everything.)

We're now halfway through the Grand Prix series, which seems unreal. The Russian Federation started my weekend mornings with ice dance and hit me with men's singles just when I'd started to go loopy from sleep deprivation. While the results were predictable at the top, the rest of the field was the kind of strange trip that made me wonder if I'd dozed in front of the TV and started dreaming about a home-field Russian podium shut-out and Alexei Bychenko earning a medal at another major international. I guess that in a world where the Cubs won the World Series, anything really is possible in sports.

Most of the disappointments in the lower ranks were expected. Alexander Majorov has been struggling with his jumps all season - and, really, for a few years now - and last weekend was no different. In his free skate, he suffered a bloody nose that sent rivulets of blood running down his face and arms for almost half of his program. It was disgusting and admirable at the same time. Deniss Vasiljevs, who put Latvia on the figure skating map last season, is having trouble keeping up with those high hopes now. His new coach, Stéphane Lambiel, looked like he was a second away from jumping onto the ice and finishing Vasiljevs' programs for him. While Vasiljevs has extraordinary potential, his jump consistency is still a work in progress. Two of the three Russians at the event, perennial third-stringers Gordei Gorshkov and Artur Dmitriev Jr., also settled close to the bottom. Both had a few bright moments but were mostly forgettable.

One of the pleasantest surprises of the short program was Chafik Besseghier. He opened with a high and graceful quad toe loop-triple toe loop, on his way to a clean skate. His spins were faster and more centered than in the past, and I've never seen him connect this naturally to his program music before. I'm always happy to see technically focused skaters pay attention to their program components and non-jump elements, and Besseghier is one of several skaters this season who has made a real transformation. Unfortunately, he threw it all away in the free skate, doubling several planned triple jumps and fighting a number of awkward landings. 

Keiji Tanaka was the perfect opposite of Besseghier, weathering a nightmarish short program and coming back strong in the free skate. In general, Tanaka and Besseghier are mirrors of one another, as Tanaka has always been an engaging and well-rounded skater with jumps that can't quite keep up. He struggled with the quad salchow that opened his free skate, but he kept his feet on the ice, a big improvement from the zero-credit double that destroyed him in the short program. Amazingly, the messy quad was the only significant technical error in a demanding program that required him to execute a number of difficult jumps long after fatigue had set in. Tanaka was the highest-finishing competitor to earn maximum levels for all of his spins in the free skate, showing off smooth transitions from one difficult position to another. He was also just plain fun to watch, making the most of his playful choreography and generally looking like he was having a blast. He might have risen even higher than 7th overall if not for one stingy judge who gave him straight 5's for PCS, and who must have mistaken him for some other skater entirely.

Instead, Elladj Balde edged Tanaka out for 6th place, mostly on the strength of an error-free short program that was also quad-free and artistic nuance-free. He put down a few lovely jumps in his free skate, most notably a huge but controlled triple lutz-half loop-triple salchow, but he struggled with his hardest elements, a quad toe loop and a triple Axel. In a different field, his performances would have stood out more, but in this high-energy group, he faded.

The top five finishers were where things got wild. After a dismal short program, in which he fell on his quad salchow and failed to earn anything higher than a level 2 for his non-jump elements, Max Aaron came roaring back with a stellar performance of this season's most absurd senior-level competitive program. Aaron must have taken a couple of beginner Afro Jazz classes over the summer, and really felt them, because all of a sudden he's using his upper body dynamically and highlighting the rise and fall of his music. He's still uncomfortably slow in his step sequences, but the judges have taken note of his improved edge depth and control, both in his grades of execution and his components scores. He's risking some challenging transitions this season, too, like the enormous second-half triple Axel that flows into a flying sit spin with only a quick hop in between. When his jumps are on point - as they consistently were in this free skate - it's easier to see how much work he puts into the other facets of his skating. 

Mikhail Kolyada's short program is so much fun that he brought it back for a second season. The mugging is what draws the crowd in, but his sharp and well-timed dance moves are the real backbone of his signature off-the-rails tango. His quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination, for which he has some of the most secure technique in the sport, earned the highest number of points for a single element in the entire event. If not for a stumble on his triple Axel - he gave it a little too much power and couldn't check out - he might have gone into the free skate ahead of the World Champion. Even so, he would have blown it in the free skate. He started off strong, with a lovely quad toe loop, but fatigue and emotion seemed to take over in the second half. He popped jumps, blew levels on his spins, and shrugged right off the podium. Kolyada is my favorite Russian men's skater since Yagudin, but he'll need more than an infectious smile to maintain his ascending reputation.

I've seen some fans bellyaching that this was a bad event because Alexei Bychenko came in third. Those fans have no appreciation of serendipity. This also seems like a good time to remind everyone that Bychenko is the reigning European silver medalist, and that's not just because 2016 Euros looked like a bunch of guys competing for best impersonation of a Zamboni. Bychenko is an inconsistent jumper and an embarrassing spinner, but he has somehow managed to peak in his late 20's and pose a more serious threat than anyone expects him to. At Rostelecom, he went 3 for 3 on his quad toe loop, not only landing his hardest jumps but earning high positive grades of execution for them. In fact, aside from a minor step out on a triple Axel in his free skate, Bychenko didn't put a foot wrong all weekend. He also breezed through his programs with wicked speed and - surprise! - earned some well-deserved love from the judges for his interpretation. Both programs play up his inherent dorkiness rather than trying to turn him into a romantic hero. It's not the most polished path to a medal, but it certainly worked for him this time.

For the first time this season, Shoma Uno landed all the jumps in his short program. His performance was far from trouble-free - he stumbled out of both quadruple jumps - but he did more than enough to secure the highest short program score of the Grand Prix so far. As his comfort with his choreography increases, he's getting more of a handle on its balance of delicacy and intensity. With his small stature and his baby face, Uno has to work harder than most to convey artistic maturity, and this program has been a learning curve for him. By the end of the season, I think he'll really have it. What he does have now, in addition to some of the most difficult jump content in the sport, is a rare ability to connect difficult moves smoothly and naturally. He doesn't just enter his triple Axel from a spread eagle, but exits it directly into a cantilever, then launches into his step sequence with no chance to pick up speed. He got big GOEs on both elements, but not perfect ones, and I'm left wondering what else the judges could have expected from him. 

I'd hoped Uno would keep up the momentum in his free skate, but he lacked the fire that won him Skate America. He started strong, with perhaps his best quad flip yet, but he lost momentum and focus in the middle of the program. For the first time this season, Uno looked young and nervous, missing jump combinations and dropping levels. Even before he fell on his second quad toe loop attempt, it looked like he'd sink behind Fernandez overall. He got his groove back with a spectacular triple Axel-half loop-triple flip at the end, but Uno's free skate was a reminder that he still has a lot of room to grow.

Javier Fernandez, on the other hand, skated like a two-time World Champion who knew he had this in the bag. In the short program, that attitude didn't work so well: he tap danced out of his quad toe loop-triple toe loop, did a triple salchow instead of his planned quad, and earned across-the-board level 3's for spins that he looked like he hadn't practiced since April. Deservedly high components scores kept him in second place for the segment, although both Kolyada and Bychenko bested him technically, and he couldn't come close to Uno. 

In the free skate, however, he easily made up the difference, capitalizing on Uno's fall and general unsteadiness. He wasn't perfect - he dropped levels on spins and steps again, and he probably wanted a triple toe loop instead of a double on at least one of his combinations - but he showed that he's already in top form, free of the autumn glitches that usually show up for him during the Grand Prix. It was great to see him follow a phenomenal quad salchow with a smooth triple Axel in the second half of the program, and the judges rewarded him handsomely, not only for the jumps themselves but for performing them with complicated steps and ample theatricality in between. Artistically, he was Javi as usual, recycling his short program from last season and barely even changing his shirt in the transition from Guys and Dolls to Elvis in the free skate. I can't blame him for sticking with what works, but he missed some opportunities for musical expression by breezing through "Fever" and "Jailhouse Rock" with his usual Iberian smirk. He's lucky that, even if it's a little tired, that smirk is irresistible.

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