Bernat Armangue/AP
Ashley Wagner of the United States competes in the women's free skate figure skating finals at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014.

Olympic figure skating: Learning to lose with grace

US figure skater Ashley Wagner complained about the judges scores after Thursday night's free skate figure skating finals, earning some negative press for her reaction. How do we learn to lose with grace?

Figure skater Ashley Wagner is unwittingly cutting herself down by publicly criticizing the Winter Olympics judges after Thursday night’s medal round competition in Sochi.

I feel for Ms. Wagner because she may have been one of those little girls – like I was – who constantly heard a parent saying, “If you keep making that face it’ll freeze that way!”

Her frustration with the judging at the Iceberg Skating Palace at the conclusion of the event was etched all over her face. While it’s hard to control facial expressions in a moment of upset, we can learn to control our mouths afterward. 

The scoring in figure skating is a perennial issue, leaving many competitors and spectators wondering about how winners are decided in competitions measuring subjective and objective elements.

This is where Wagner tripped up, essentially suggesting that the two Russian skaters, gold medalist Adelina Sotnikova and fifth-place finisher Julia Lipnitskaia, had been given unfairly inflated scores.

"I feel gypped," said Wagner, according to Yahoo, who skated two programs without any falls.

She didn’t stop there. I really wish she had because it would have been a much more recoverable situation.

"To be completely honest, this sport needs fans and needs people who want to watch it,” Wagner added. “People do not want to watch a sport where they see someone skate lights out and they can't depend on that person to be the one who pulls through. People need to be held accountable."

Seeing the news of Wagner’s sour grapes comments against the judges prompted me to call a different kind of Olympian-turned-coach, whose motto is, “Win with grace. Lose with dignity,” Chess Olympiad champion, Grandmaster Susan Polgar.

Chess, while far less subjective, is an officially recognized sport by the International Olympic Committee, complete with an Olympiad, arbiters, and medals.

Ms. Polgar, born in Hungary, has kicked down plenty of doors in her time and has been the subject of controversies for taking on male-dominated systems in her sport. She was the first woman in history to earn the Grandmaster title (1991) and won the Chess Olympiad four times with an unbeaten record of never having lost one of the 56 Olympic games she played between 1988 and 2004.

She is also a tremendous fan of figure skating.

When I called her this morning at her office at Webster University, where she is the coach of the men’s championship-winning chess team, she had some advice for Wagner on how to improve her post-Olympic game.

“My advice to her is to work even harder when external events take place that she cannot control,” Polgar says. “Use that as motivation to work harder, try harder.”

Polgar agreed it was a bad move for Wagner to take this critical position, especially on the heels of the controversy over how she was chosen for the US Olympic skating team. The members of the US Figure Skating committee chose Wagner, even after her performance at the US Figure Skating Championship finals imploded with fall after fall, instead of one of the other female skaters who finished above her, according to The Christian Science Monitor. 

“When your sport of choice has such a subjective element, you must realize that sometimes it will favor you and sometimes it may not,” Polgar says of skating’s hierarchy. “Still, as a fan, I don’t want to see someone being a poor sport.”

It's true that Wagner ended up ranked lower than Lipnitskaia, who fell in each of her programs, and Mao Asada, who also fell during the short program, and fourth-place Gracie Gold, her fellow American, who also fell on the ice Thursday. 

Wagner skated cleanly, if not remarkably, Thursday night. But her complaints take away some of the sheen from her beautiful program.

As a mom, I always find it hard to be the judge of when my child has a legitimate complaint about a teacher and when it’s a cover for slacking, or not grasping the material.

Many a child has told a parent who is holding a bad report card in hand, “It’s not my fault! That teacher hates me.”

Grades in school can be very similar to figure skating when it comes to essays and answers given.

Every day, we teach our kids that they must find ways to work within the system that may not always be fair or just.

In life – as in sport – it’s important to remind our kids that it’s not their failures, but the way they cope with them that makes us the most proud.

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