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1991-1993 Worlds: Yamaguchi, Harding, Karrigan, Bonaly, and Chen

Updated on August 12, 2017

Kristi Yamaguchi in 1991

Kristi Yamaguchi: unassuming champion

The 1990s was an interesting time when the sportsmanship was put to test with an unprecedented scandal involved with Tanya Harding that shook the world of figure skating to the core. The Great Katarina Witt had just bowed out, and ladies figure skating had needed another queen of ice who could fill in for Witt, and with Witt's glamorous success on and off ice, before anyone realized, ladies figure skating had become a sport of fame and fortune. In this setting a fierce rivalry had formed. Tanya Harding, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Nancy Karrigan all bid for the throne, but at the end, the underdog Yamaguchi came out victorious. But Yamaguchi's skating was far from being perfect; her jump height was notably low and her stamina also appears lackadaisical. In fact, Tonya Harding was better equipped than Yamaguchi in terms of skating assets, and had everything she needed to become a champion. But Yamaguchi skated with less mistakes and her strategies of minimizing mistakes paid off.

It goes without saying that power and stamina, as Witt or Ito may testifies, are critical element in ladies figure skating for skaters to maintain accuracy and stability during performance. Especially when how many jumps or how many more difficult jumps skaters landed would swing the outcome. As skaters stretched out their luck on more difficult jumps, their overall skating asset would run thinner and thinner. So naturally, skaters are forced to focus damage control. Yamaguchi's jumps are stable, yet in quality they are too weak compared to Harding's, but Harding was a half-baked skater despite the fact that her skating was powerful. She was not Katarina Witt nor Midori Ito after all. Harding's make-or-break skating often lacked consistency and sophistication. Some speculate that if Harding had been born in a normal family and raised like a normal kid, she could have made herself a different skater. But I doubt it. I rather think Harding's case is a reminder that there is more than skills and talents to make a skater great. Some even suggested that Kerrigan could have become a champion hadn't she been attacked by Harding. Again I doubt it. Kerrigan was slow and less flexible, and lacked of power. I don't think she could have handled better. The 1991 Worlds appears shining with all-American podium. To many it was the beginning of Renaissance for U.S. ladies figure skating. But in reality, the U.S. dominance led by the trio was just an illusion.

Kristi Yamaguchi in 1991

Tonya Harding in 1991

Tonya Harding in 1991

Nancy Kerrigan in 1991

Nancy Kerrigan in 1991

Who do you think is the winner of the 1991 Worlds?

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If the 1980s was an era of adventure, the 1990s was an era of adjustment. Many champions from the 1980s were giants in the eyes of skaters of the 1990s for good reasons. Back in the 1980s, a clean program hadn't guarantied the podium, but in the 1990s most skaters seemed struggling with landing triples. Their problems were in fact more fundamental. For example, Kristi's weakness at first appears due to her low jump height, but in fact, her problem comes from her lack of power and stamina. Due to the lack of power, Kristi couldn't afford high jumps.

Like Yamaguchi, her rivals were suffering the same fate. The common problem skaters in the 1990s shared was that their performances were deflated due to lack of jumping technique. For example, In a circumstance like that, Kristi was the one who came out with less messy programs. The performance above is an example that shows Kristi's jumping problem. Kristi appears to have adequate speed into her jump, but she fails to ride on the momentum; she rather jerks it. That is, she fails to convert forward momentum to a tangential takeoff. That's one of technical flaws she had on takeoff, but it's also connected to her low fuel. After all Kristi couldn't afford to invest a huge amount of fuel on takeoff.

In comparison with Katarina Witt, Kristi Yamaguchi can be better portrayed:If Katarina Witt had a Hummer engine, Kristi Yamaguchi had a Tercel one. In many senses, Nancy Kerrigan could have been Katarina Witt's disciple. Her skating style falls into the same category as Katarina Witt: power dependency, muscular build,and relentless flow. But unlike Witt, Kerrigan didn't have the kind of jumping technique Witt had. Back then, technical marks reflect on how many times skaters fell or didn't fall. Of course, that still holds effect in the COP; what decides the outcome in the end is jump even today.

Kerrigan's deficiency was not rooted in jumping technique alone. In fact, her problem was her skating itself, which was fundamentally weak. But if you look carefully, it is not difficult to notice technical degeneration from 1990s to 1980s, as there was a sharp technical decline from the 1970s to 1980s. It appears the speed of degeneration never seemed to stall or reduce ever since. Interestingly the 1980s when "compulsory" the old relic remained in competition, though reduced its influence, we had many great skaters, Biellmann, Zayak, Witt, Thomas, Sumners, Manny, Kadavy, Ito to name a few. Evidently, the technical decline coincided with newly installed short program and reduction of compulsory portion in competition. So, on surface, skaters upgraded jump from double to triple, but in reality the technical deficiency had been further expanding under the cover of triple festivals as critical elements such as balance and stability were compromised, because skaters more focused on adding one more revolution in jump.

As Chen Lu demonstrates, the 1990 skating shows a sharp technical decline from the 1980s. Nearly all skaters from top to bottom of the 1990s are unable to land triples. Apparently skaters of the 1990s are technically far inferior to those of the 1980s. Not only jumping technique but overall moves on ice are critically deficient. What happened? Those big names from the 1980s were geniuses while the skaters of the 1980s were just ordinary? Chen Lu was a young and energetic skater. Her speed is remarkable. But what is more impressive about Chen Lu is that she understands what figure skating is. In figure skating, you must use your whole body as a means to create interpretative expression of music as well as bodily language in contextual momentum. That only can be done when skaters are able to use their body parts to align with momentum. Chen Lu's skating testifies why today's leading skaters, especially Russian skaters, show comprehensive deficiency in their performance.Chen

If Denise Biellmann was the one and only figure for the 1980s, Oksana Baiul was for the 1990s. Interestingly, both skaters show a similarity . Just as Katarina Witt dominated in competitive arena after Biellmann had retired, so came the celebrated Michelle Kwan after Baiul's early retirement. Like Biellmann, Baiul was also a skater with unusual talent. What makes skaters great differences is not triple jump but the quality of their moves on ice, especially degree of freedom they demonstrate on ice. If you watch Baiul's performances, you will quickly understand why her contemporaries went wild; they couldn't find such easy and masterful moves in other skaters. Although Baiul above shows a few technical glitz, she is a well-rounded skater. Baiul was ahead taller than her competitors. As Bezic above commented, excellent skaters know how to skate with their whole body. Their members are always in line with the forward momentum and their skating is full of integrated bodily moves, not individually unglued components. Baiul' skating had such a quality that was so rare in the 1990s.

Sandra Bezic once said, quite bluntly, "Surya doesn't know how to skate." This unusual remark is in fact a testament on this controversial European champion at the time. Since Bonaly was with an European title, Bezic's comment couldn't be more bizarre to you, but Bonaly was a case of judging failure. Bonaly had an acrobatic jumping ability for sure. But her skating was simply too depleted and too low in level to be considered as an elite skater. It is mind-boggling that such a skater had been crowned legitimately. That's a shame. For all intents and purposes, Bonaly's skating shouldn't have been ratified. So, even though Bonaly stood on the podium along with Baiul, it is egregiously absurd to compare Bonaly's performance to Baiul's. In today's standards, it is unthinkable to have the two skaters on the same podium.

If Bonaly was a skater who demonstrated a disastrous example of ill-defined technicality in figure skating, here Lu was the opposite. Chen Lu above appeared stiff and fairly premature in moves; however, Lu skated using her whole body. Basically that's how you skate. Move along with your entire body with correct angles and adequate turns.


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