Figure skating is getting younger again.
For a while, both figure skating and gymnastics seemed to be moving away from the jumping bean sensibility-- those tiny athletic geniuses who had all the tricks by the time they were 11.
After several younger skaters started suffering debilitating injuries, notably Tara Lipinski's multiple hip surgeries, the federations seemed to get the message. The rules were changed to keep 12 to 14 year olds out of the Senior level competitions, although no rules were implemented to keep very young children from training at those levels, and the various national federations still have different rules.
The girls seem to have been held at bay-- I identified only two 14 year olds in Ladies Singles at the Senior level at Nationals this year (someone correct me-- I couldn't find a complete list that had skater stats) , but the sport has now discovered the boys.
The boys have a self-limiting disadvantage-- the triple axel and the quad anything. You cannot place at Nationals at the Championship (Senior) level without these jumps, and boys simply don't have the muscular strength for these before adolescence, and in some cases much later.
But since the pre-pube girls have become off-limits, the sport has found a way to push that envelope down, and there is now the phenomenon of 9 year old Intermediate and 10 year old Novice boys (I refuse to call them men) with all the triples except the axel. The fans have gone right along with it--Twitter goes insane for kids like Nathan Chen and Tomoki Hawatashi, praising them for being "tiny," "adorable" etc.
Russia isn't helping. They've clearly spent the last 8 years setting up for an all-event podium sweep at Sochi and have been trotting out streams of baby skaters who will just creep into eligibility in time for the 2014 home-soil Olympics. This pressure pushes down the age for everyone else as well, with baby Japanese, baby Chinese, and then of course all the American skaters with one immigrant grandparent skating under you-name-it flag in order to get to an international career. (Note-- I have no argument with this phenomenon, as it opens up competitions to a lot of kids who would be also-rans in highly competitive nations, but I fear the age pressure it engenders.)
There is something to be said for teaching kids the
advanced skills in early adolescence. Studies, and experience, show that
what you learn between the ages of 9 and about 15 will stick with you
your whole life. Think about that piano sonata or poem you memorized in
7th grade-- I bet you still remember it.
Pushing that envelope downwards does a terrible disservice not just to the torque and landing forces put on young, unfinished bodies, but also on the emotional lives of these kids. Part of the problem lies in the refusal of the NCAA to add figure skating as a subsidized college sport-- these kids feel (rightly) that they have to get it all done before the end of high school. If you're not at the elite level by the time you're 17, you will simply run out of money and will have to choose-- college or skating. Every other sport manages to educate its kids, allowing them to train and learn at the same time. At every rink you'll see the spring ritual-- up the pictures of all the hockey kids who have gotten college scholarships to play and learn, and down come the tears from all the figure skaters who have to give up either college or skating.
We need to give our skaters time to grow up. We need to be careful with their beautiful bodies and minds.