Last Saturday, when figure skater Mirai Nagasu placed third at the U.S. National Championships, she had every reason to believe she had secured herself a position on the 2014 U.S. Olympic team. In Olympic years, after all, the U.S. National Championships have acted as the figure skating Olympic trials, and the U.S. Figure Skating Association has only ever disregarded their results four times in history – each time because of an injury.
It was a surprise, then, when the three figure skaters representing the United States at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games were announced and in Nagasu's stead was fourth place National Championships finisher, Ashley Wagner.
It was a legal move – according to the rules, the U.S. Figure Skating Association is allowed to consider a skater's body of work over the past year and give it an unspecified but "significant" amount of weight. But it was unprecedented, too, and controversial.
Ashley Wagner, after all, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, looks the prototypical all-American. Nagasu – you can probably tell by the name – does not.
There are a lot of people calling it racist.
I do not know if they are right. There are reasons to believe the decision was, as the USFSA insists, "fair" – though Wagner's performance on Sunday was so riddled with errors that she felt the need to publicly apologize via Twitter afterwards, she is the two-time defending national champion, with the highest American placements at the last two World Championships.
Yet, Nagasu is the only candidate with Olympic experience – she finished fourth at the 2010 Vancouver games. Under the high-stakes of the National Championships, Nagasu was the only one of the candidates to overcome her nerves and perform two error-free routines.
One would think that if the Olympic team decision was, as the USFSA claims, truly based on overall experience, second place finisher, 15-year-old Polina Edmunds – for whom Sunday night was a senior-level competition debut – would have been the one to go.
Figure skating is an inherently subjective sport, and there really is no way to judge the role race did or did not play in the USFSA's decision. What we can note, though, is the role that race has most certainly played in its response.
For many Asian-Americans, the USFSA's decision has felt like a betrayal. Asian-American celebrities, after all, are few and far between; though we comprise 5 percent of the general population, we represent less than 3 percent of prime-time actors on television, often only the role of a foreigner or a stereotype. In sports, these numbers are even sparser. One need only consider the cultural significance of Jeremy Lin – the fourth ever Asian-American in the NBA – and his 2012 "Linsanity" to understand the importance of such prominent profiling to a population starved of popular representation. In Olympic figure skating, where Michelle Kwan's 1998 loss to Tara Lipinski was announced by MSNBC with the headline, "American beats out Kwan," Nagasu's third-place National Championship finish and presumed earned Olympic spot felt a bit like a collective victory.
For the USFSA, the decision may truly have not had anything to do with race; for many Asian-Americans around the country, the decision has had little to do with anything else.
As a child, I watched the Olympics with a special kind of attention – criss-cross applesauced on the floor at the kind of short distance from the television usually reserved for the few hours every Saturday morning the cartoons showed up on the six or so channels picked up by our antennae. The Olympians I rooted for were decided on two factors. First, I cheered for the athletes that talked like I did – in English with American accents – dressed in the old, familiar red, white and blue. Next, I cheered for the athletes that looked like I did – with features that I, at the time, probably could not have defined, but that stood out both to me and to the classmates that asked me why my eyes were so slanted.
It's been 16 years since her Olympic debut, but I still remember the special pride I felt as Michelle Kwan glided across the screen of my family television and, for the first time in my six years of life, I did not have to choose between the two.
For whatever the reason Wagner replaced Nagasu on this year's Olympic team, it's a pity my 6-year-old counterparts this season will be left still waiting.
Melissa Lee is a senior in College Scholars. She can be reached at email@example.com.