February 23, 2018 12:18 PM

Twenty years ago, at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, two American women battled for the gold medal spot in the ladies’ singles competition: Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan.

As we know now, Lipinski ended up with gold and Kwan the silver. In 2002, it was much of the same: American Sarah Hughes took gold while Kwan won bronze. At the World Championships, too, American women dominated: From 1996 to 2006, there were only three years where an American woman didn’t land the top spot, and even then, the United States still had one (or even two) women on the podium.

Fast forward to today: Sasha Cohen is the last ladies’s singles skater to have won an Olympic medal — at the 2006 games in Turin, Italy. And since 2006, there has only been one American woman to win a medal of any hue at the World Championships: Ashley Wagner, in 2016.

In short, American female skaters have fallen from dominance over the past decade. But why?

Lipinski herself has a explanation, which she shared in an op-ed for The New York Times. For the top American skaters in the early stages of their careers, she says, they are not only not incentivized to increase the difficulty in their programs, they’re rewarded when they keep their technical skills at a lower level, too.

Lipinski writes that when she was competing, she knew Kwan, a skater who routinely received what were then perfect scores (skating’s judging system has since been changed) was her top competition. To top Kwan’s perfect scores, she made her program harder, adding in a triple loop, triple loop combination. She was the first female skater to land the combination in competition, and it sealed her gold medal win. She says that whenever a skater adds a new jump or a tricky combination, it ups the ante for everyone.

“It’s little decisions like these that accumulate through the years and through the efforts of multiple athletes to push a sport forward, and I’m very proud to have played a small part in this evolution,” Lipinski writes. “Today, almost all of the top women’s skaters have a triple-triple combination in their arsenal, and some even have two.”

Alina Zagitova performs a jump with her arms over her head, which earns her additional points for difficulty
Amin Mohammad Jamali/Getty Images

But American women haven’t been pushing the sport forward for years now, she says, with a few exceptions, including Mirai Nagasu — who became the first American woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics in this year’s team competition. This year, American women Bradie Tennell, Nagasu and Karen Chen came in ninth, tenth and eleventh place, respectively, in the ladies’s singles competition.

Keep Following PEOPLE’s Complete Coverage of the 2018 Winter Olympics

International skating judging changed in 2004, both at the junior and senior levels, to very much favor difficult programs, even with a few mistakes, over easier programs that are skated cleanly. But for the juvenile to novice competitions, each country got to set their own rules. In the United States, the judging remained relatively untouched — and rewards the skaters who skate without error — no matter the jumps they try.

“Young skaters in the United States were rewarded not for innovating and taking risks — attempting new combos, for instance, or trying more difficult jumps — but for skating cleanly,” Lipinski says. “Skating, like all other sports, has an element of strategy; what followed was a generation of young women who went home after competitions, rethought their programs, took out those triple-triples — and found they could still win.”

“But this judging system created a pipeline of athletes who were not well equipped to be competitive on the world stage.”

Mirai Nagasu completing a triple axel during the team event
Jamie Squire/Getty

Lipinski goes on to compare the American system to the Russian one. Russia, of course, produced the two top female finishers in this year’s Olympics, gold medalist Alina Zagitova and silver medalist Evgenia Medvedeva. The 2014 gold medalist, Adelina Sotnikova, was Russian as well. Lipinski says these skaters are taught to incorporate technical difficulty into their skating at a young age, leading them to push the sport to new heights with incredible combinations and jumps with their arms over their head (moving their center of gravity higher).

U.S. skater Nathan Chen, nicknamed the quad king for his incredible ability to land several quadruple jumps in his programs, has pushed men’s skating forward, Lipinski says, but women’s skating has not had the same catalyst. But now, she says, things are starting to change thanks to judging changes that were put in place following the 2014 games in Sochi. She also lauds U.S. Figure Skating for selecting women like Nagasu and Tennell, who reliably land combination jumps, to this year’s Olympic team.

She sums up her thoughts in the final paragraph with three words: “Risks bring rewards.”

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