Competitive figure skating offers a variety of different competitive opportunities, for both serious and recreational ice skaters. There are events for all different levels of skating ability and for all ages. When most people think of competitive figure skating they think of the type of ice skating competitions they see on television, Nationals, Worlds, and the Olympics. These competitions are for Elite Skaters and are what is refered to as "Qualifying Competitions." Basically, to make it to Nationals a skater has to place in the top 4 at their Regional Competition* to qualify for Sectionals,and then again place in the top 4 at their Sectional Competition* to qualify to compete at Nationals. An Elite Skater in the US must have passed their "Senior" level tests for their discipline to be eligible to compete at this level and even enter Regionals.
After Nationals, comes the World Championships and The Olympics. To qualify for Worlds, or the Olympics, a skater normally has to place in the top 3** at Nationals, however this isn't a guarantee, and US Figure Skating does have some disrection on this and can choose to send different skaters. This happens rarely, but can happen especially with the Olympics. In some cases a skater might be too young to represent the US, or in the case of some pair and dance teams one partner might not be a citizen of the US and therefore while they qualify as a legal resident of the US to compete at a National and World competitions they can't represent the US at the Olympics, and sometimes the substitution is less clear and based on "merit". An example of this exception would be when Ashley Wagner placed 4th at the 2014 National Championships, yet was named to the Sochi Olympic team anyway. US Figure Skating weighed her strong international results and her previous 2 back to back National titles, and decided she deserved a spot on the Olympic Team over Mirai Nagasu who had placed 3rd at Nationals.
*Former National Champions, and other Team USA members receive a "Bye" to Sectionals, and in some cases Nationals (for more information see the USFSA Rulebook page 119 section 2470). For Pairs and Ice Dance teams qualifying starts with Sectionals.
**The number of spots available for a country at Worlds or the Olympics in a given discipline is deteremined by how well the country's skaters did at the previous World Championships. If the country's skaters don't place high enough the number of skaters able to compete in that disciple is reduced. The maximum any one country can send in each discipline (Women's, Men's, Pairs, Dance) is 3. Earning places works as follows:
- If a country only has one skater/team, that skater/team must place in the top ten to earn two entries and in the top two to earn three entries.
- If a country has two (or three) skaters/teams, the combined placement of the top 2 skaters must be 13 or less to qualify 3 entries, and 28 or less to qualify two entries.
- For the Olympics, the remaining places are awarded as one skater/team each from countries that failed to get multiple places, in order of their skaters' placement in the world championships until the maximum spots of 30 participants in each singles events (ladies and men),up to 20 pairs teams, and up to 24 ice dance teams is reached.
- For the World Championships there is no cap on the number of competitors, however only the top 24 skaters after the short program in singles move on to compete in the long program, only the top 20 pairs after the short program move on to the free skate, and only the top 24 dance teams move on to the free dance after the short dance.
- Additionally, to qualify all skaters in each discipline must meet the minimum technical elements scores (TES) in the short and free programs at a prior international event. The short and free scores may be attained at different international events in the ongoing or preceding season.