BOSTON — Light enough to appear she’s not beholden to gravity and strong enough to reel off eight triple jumps in a four-minute blast, 15-year-old Polina Edmunds has been dubbed an “iron butterfly” here at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
And with her powerful short program Thursday night, this butterfly wreaked havoc on the established order in American figure skating, forcing herself into the complex equation that will determine which three U.S. women will be chosen for the 2014 Sochi Olympic team.
Heading into these U.S. Championships, Ashley Wagner, 22, and Gracie Gold, 18, were regarded as certainties, leaving one spot up for grabs.
While figure-skating insiders were aware of Edmunds, last year’s U.S. junior champion, they regarded her with the hopeful, long-term eye of a gardener who plants bulbs in fall and awaits their blossoms in spring. The reed-like teen had flashed the potential to emerge as the future of U.S. figure skating, but that future seemed an Olympic cycle away. It was far more likely that the third spot for Sochi would go to 19-year-old Agnes Zawadzki or 2010 Olympians Mirai Nagasu and Rachael Flatt, who finished fourth and seventh in Vancouver.
In less than two minutes, Edmunds trashed that timetable.
The last skater to compete her short program, she vaulted ahead of Nagasu into second, relegating Wagner, the two-time defending U.S. Champion, to the same anguished spot she found herself in four years ago, on the outside looking in as younger rivals claimed the two Olympic spots in Vancouver.
Wagner has an opportunity to make up ground in her free skate. And she may not need the extra boost to punch her ticket to Sochi. But Edmunds has added an element of tension to the process, which ends Sunday when the Olympic team is named.
Edmunds has been on a fast-track timetable almost from birth. Schooled in figure skating by her Russian mother since age 2, she was enrolled in formal figure-skating lessons with David Glynn, a protégé of coaching legend Frank Carroll, at 4.
“Her mom, Nina, has been the driving force behind Polina’s success,” Glynn said. “She’s very knowledgeable and has worked very hard with her daughter. She has taught her to spin, how to move, taken her to dance classes, ballet, tap and jazz, and has been committed completely since Day One to get her daughter to where she is now.”
At 15, Edmunds has a full team behind her that includes three coaches, a choreographer and the venerable Carroll, who coached Evan Lysacek and Michelle Kwan to Olympic medals, as an occasional consultant.
With his skater suddenly a contender for a 2014 Olympic berth, Glynn, the technical coach who taught Edmunds her jumps, has also become her most vocal advocate.
“As far as technically, she really doesn’t need much more than what she has now; she does everything that the top girls in the world are doing,” said Glynn.
Asked about her mental strength, given that Edmunds’s only international competition has been in the junior ranks, Glynn said: “She is 2014’s version of Tara Lipinski as far as being tough.”
Lipinski, of course, was an Olympic champion at 15.
If any U.S. woman has earned a spot on the 2014 Olympic team, it is Wagner, the West Potomac High graduate and two-time U.S. champion who has finished atop the podium in her past six international events.
Her strong performances on the international stage have rehabilitated the global profile of U.S. figure skating, which had lapsed since the eras of Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi, Kwan, Lipinski, Sasha Cohen and Sarah Hughes. U.S. women were shut out of the medals at the 2010 Olympics for the first time since 1964.
The selection of the 2014 Olympic team isn’t based strictly on the outcome of the U.S. Championships this week, so there’s no guarantee that Edmunds would make the cut even if she wins gold, silver or bronze.
U.S. Figure Skating officials look through a broader lens in selecting the Olympic team, considering who has proven themselves on the international stage, who has developed a reputation among judges and who can stand up to pressure.
In Carroll’s view, this is only fitting.
“I have no problem with it,” Carroll said. “I think we should send our very best skaters. Polina was magnificent [Thursday], but who do you think are the best girls?”
In Saturday’s afternoon session, ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White claimed a record sixth consecutive U.S. title after shattering their previous American record for a short program Friday. Their marks (200.19 points) underscored their status as gold-medal favorites in Sochi. Madison Chock and Evan Bates (181.44) took silver, and siblings Alex and Maia Shibutani (170.44) got bronze. The three couples are expected to be named to the Olympic team Sunday.
Boston area natives Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir won the pairs title (205.7), with Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay (201.72) claiming silver. The bronze went to Caydee Denney and John Coughlin (201.43). The U.S. will send just two pairs teams to Sochi.