Maybe one day Twitter mentions will form part of the scoring criteria for figure skating. Why not? The whole process could scarcely be more confusing than it currently stands.
If that day comes, then Jimmy Ma is in business.
Ma, 22, from Queens, N.Y., finished Thursday night's short program at the United States Figure Skating Championships down in 11th place in the men's competition, with Saturday's free skate to follow and three Olympic places on offer. But, if cheers, energy and online impact are anything to go by, he ended the evening as the clubhouse leader.
The reason? Ma took the bold and drastic step of daring to inject some modernity into his program, skating to a hip hop-electronic dance mix of Turn Down For What by DJ Snake and Lil Jon, and DJ Snake's Propaganda. If you're unfamiliar with those numbers, you are (a) over 25, and (b) should do a YouTube search as it will provide a better description than anything I can offer through words.
Let's just say it's not Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.
“Figure skating is an extreme sport,” Ma told USA TODAY Sports as he headed down a corridor in the arena, minutes after competing. “I want the most amount of people to see that it is both an awesome art form and also an awesome sport. The whole point was to get people hyped. Get older people hyped and for younger people to think it is cool.”
So thank you, Jimmy Ma, for just that fact. The SAP Center in San Jose has been in varying states of emptiness this week, with the upper bowl concealed behind thick black curtains to help hide the fact that there are thousands on unoccupied seats.
NBC is here, but it won't be counting on nationals for a ratings bonanza. The common consensus is that figure skating's popularity is waning because there is currently no American female superstar to beat the world's best and lift the sport close to the status it enjoyed when Michelle Kwan or Nancy Kerrigan or Kristi Yamaguchi were doing their thing.
There is some merit to that, but there is also no denying that figure skating has willingly slipped into a time warp. It is a proud sport with a proud tradition and the whole thing doesn't need to turn into a rave, but a little more life would be very welcome.
Ma lit the place up and lit up social media. He knows he's not going to the Olympics and is 30 points off the pace set by Olympic gold medal favorite Nathan Chen after the opening skate, but he's serious about his craft, having recently moved from the Big Apple to Dallas for training, while still undertaking online computer science classes from Fordham University.
His performance was live on NBC and he hopes that the music and verve during his time on the ice might have persuaded a few remote control waverers to stick around for the likes of Chen, or other Olympic hopefuls Adam Rippon and Jason Brown.
“If there was anybody flicking through who might not normally watch I hope that seeing and hearing me might have pulled them in,” he added. “If the excitement of my routine gets them watching, then they can see the incredible things the top guys are doing.”
Chen landed a pair of enormous quad jumps and they were phenomenal. But the scoring system is highly technical and makes the process a game of math as much as anything else. Chen is a great kid and if he holds his nerve, can certainly warrant a spot on the Olympic podium. Yet it wasn't him who was trending on Twitter, it was Ma.
“Mostly it is just a percentage thing,” Chen said, describing one of the elements of his routine.
In May, Ma sat down with his choreographer Nikolai Morozov over a beer and barbeque and ran through a bunch of different tracks. After trying several out on the ice, they settled on Turn Down For What. The theme was complete with a badass persona, as Ma first thumped his chest then urged applause from the audience in the moments after the conclusion.
It was a little “mean mugging”, he said, a la Russell Westbrook in the NBA All-Star Game last season. Man, it was great.
Maybe it was easier to do because he was not in contention. Likely the fear of being scorned by the traditionalists and nitpicked by the judges would be enough to scare off a contender from trying something so bold. What a shame that is.
Figure skating is a tremendous sport. It is supremely athletic, wonderfully artistic and spectacularly creative. The fact that it can sometimes become tedious is nothing to do with the athletic endeavor, and everything to do with becoming bogged down with the status quo.
“It does take (some bravery), but I want to keep pushing the bar on that,” Ma said. “Now I've got people who aren't figure skating fans talking and saying 'hey, this little Asian guy is skating to hip hop.'”
Ma is a fun guy who has something about him. Ducking into the media lounge late on Thursday he cheekily snuck himself a hamburger, while chatting to a buddy on his cellphone. Later, he chilled watching Netflix with his dad in their hotel room, while avoiding Twitter for fear of getting overwhelmed by the sudden attention.
On Saturday, during the men's long program, he'll take a more typical path, with a classical piece by Rachmaninov.
“The long program is my style,” he said. “The short program is something different and exciting. That's my personality.”
Come on figure skating, let's have a little more of it.