US must be spot-on

Third Olympic women's berth on the line at skating World Championships

By Barry Wilner
Associated Press / March 22, 2009
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Imagine having just two US women in figure skating at the Winter Olympics.

That would have meant no Sarah Hughes in Salt Lake City in 2002. And no Olympic gold for Hughes.

Three spots for American women at the Olympics is a given. In the modern era, only in 1994 did the United States have fewer than the maximum at the Games.

So when the most important World Figure Skating Championships in the four-year Olympic cycle begin Tuesday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the American women's quest to secure three berths for Vancouver will feature a pair of unproven skaters on the international scene, Alissa Czisny and Rachael Flatt. Their challenge is daunting.

These Worlds will determine how many spots each country gets in the Vancouver field next February. There is no Michelle Kwan or Sasha Cohen to carry Old Glory, leading some to believe the Americans might be hard-pressed to earn three places.

"It is very important we do try to get three spots at the Olympics," the 16-year-old Flatt says. "I definitely think it's a very realistic goal, but I'm not focusing on that, just focusing on trying to skate my best at worlds - especially since it's my first Worlds. I want to make a really strong debut.

"I think it will be in the back of my mind, to help get three spots for the Olympics, but definitely it's not going to be my strongest focus."

A strong debut probably will be needed by Flatt, the 2008 junior world champion who is ranked 10th in the world, coupled with a good showing by Czisny (16th), who has been around since 2003 but rarely reached the heights she managed at the national championships in January. The 21-year-old Czisny won nationals despite finishing third in the free skate. Then she bombed at Four Continents a few weeks later, finishing ninth, two spots behind Flatt.

That was in a field minus any Europeans.

No American women made the Grand Prix final this season. And in her one appearance at Worlds, in 2007, Czisny was 15th.

Can these two post finishes with a combined placement of 13 (fifth and eighth, for example) or better to keep the three spots for the US in Vancouver? Going simply by their world rankings - which is kind of unfair because it doesn't fully account for how they're performing leading into Worlds or their health - they shouldn't come close.

Cohen, meanwhile, is considering trying to make the Olympic team and will decide in June whether to come back; her last competition was the 2006 Worlds won by Kimmie Meissner. But she doesn't believe Czisny or Flatt should concentrate on gaining three American spots for Vancouver.

"I think you want to do as well as you can for yourself, and if you do, the better your country will do," says Cohen, the silver medalist at Turin. "It is a pretty individual sport, but it's always great to have more spots and have a strong team and have more skaters go to the Olympics."

One nation that doesn't need to worry about three Olympic spots is Japan. Mao Asada is the defending world champion and the leader of the strongest contingent in women's skating. Japan has had elite skaters throughout the decade, and Shizuka Arakawa won the gold in Turin.

"At the Four Continents, I saw the countdown clock of the Olympics showing about 370 days," says Asada, who was third at that event behind South Korea's Kim Yu Na and Canada's Joannie Rochette, both medals contenders in LA. "Of course I sometimes think about Olympics, but I want to concentrate on the competition I have now. I will try not to think about Olympics too much, and try my best at each competition.

"I hope my experience at many championships helps me, but each competition is its own. The preparation is different from the past year. It is different every year and different with my coaches."

A tabloid rivalry has sprung up in Asia between teens Asada and Kim, with media reports claiming that Kim is upset with the Japanese skaters for encroaching on her practice space during warmups. That might add some juice to the women's competition, as will the presence of Rochette, Carolina Kostner of Italy, and Finns Laura Lepisto, Susanna Poykio, and Kiira Korpi, who were first, third, and fifth at the European Championships.

Women's skating would get even more interesting if Cohen, 24, returns.

"The Olympics are so amazing - the heart and the spirit - and you remember the great days and the terrible days, and the complete feeling of being alive, and you miss that," Cohen says. "With watching the Summer Games, I said, 'I really want to do this, I think I want to do this.' I started pushing myself and getting back into the training mentality and taking small steps, knowing I have quite a ways to go."

So does the American team, which sure could use Cohen right about now.

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