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Olympics figure skating preview: Fierce competition awaits Americans

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  February 7, 2014 08:54 AM

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Olympic dreams do come true, although we rarely see "miracles" in the sport of figure skating.

The last skater we saw come out of nowhere to win a gold medal was Sara Hughes, back in 2002. Few folks outside of the inner circle of skating knew much about this 16-year-old from Long Island. Hughes laid down a free skate loaded with triple combinations and fearless energy. Michelle Kwan had to settle for bronze even though she was the world's best skater for the better part of eight years.

With that said, it will be up to American skaters Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner to shock the world in Sochi. Gold has the perfect name for an Olympic skater, and Wagner has the experience. Both will need to put blinders on because everywhere they look the competition will be fierce.

300kim.jpgSouth Korea’s Yuna Kim is looking to become just the third woman in figure skating history to win back-to-back Olympic gold. Katarina Witt did it in 1984 and 1988. Sonja Henie did it three times between 1928 and 1936. Kim won easily in Vancouver, then “retired” for the better part of two years, only to suddenly reappear in 2013 and win the World Championship. Kim has battled some injuries this season and has been quiet on the international circuit. If Kim is healthy when she shows up in Sochi, she could very well make some history.

After Kim, I like Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia. This 15-year-old won the European Championships last month with a tremendous display of jumps, spins, and choreography. She looks like a little girl, but doesn’t skate like one. Lipnitskaia's short program, performed to "You Don't Give Up on Love" by Mark Minkov, is one of the best I have ever seen. It starts with her sketching her fingertips on the ice before a clap of thunder. From there, she skates to the sound of rain. Start to finish it is magnificent.

The bronze medal will be up for grabs. If Japan's Mao Asada nails her triple axel in both programs, it will be hard to keep her off the podium.

America’s best hope is Gracie Gold. She won the U.S. title last month in Boston, and skated better than ever. Gold has all the goods, and has done well with new coach Frank Carroll, who coached Michelle Kwan. Her confidence level is way up, and she has her jumps under control. Gold has what it takes. She just needs to deliver.

Meanwhile, Gold's teammate, Ashley Wagner, struggled to a fourth place finish at the U.S. Championships, and was named to the team by the skating federation instead of Mirai Nagasu. The decision was based on Wagner's past performance.

In a bold and unusual move, Wagner changed her free skate program from Romeo and Juliet to last year's Samson and Delilah. It is rare to see a skater switch gears so radically just weeks before the Olympics. Maybe she can channel off the power of Delilah instead of the desperation of Juliet.

Polina Edmunds, a 15-year-old from California, is the other American skater in the ladies event. She is a jumping bean and has a big stash of technical elements. A top ten finish would not surprise me.

300chan.jpgMen's competition
Canada's Patrick Chan is the heavy favorite. Chan is the three-time defending world champion for a reason. He consistently hits his quad combinations, and in the men's event it’s all about the quad.

Chan will be chased by Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. The 19-year-old Hanyu upset Chan in the Grand Prix Final last November. His program is stacked with technical elements, including two quads and seven triples.

The surprise entry in this event will be a crowd favorite. 31 year-old Evgeni Plushenko got the nod from the Russian skating federation to be the one and only representative of the host country in this event. Plushenko already owns three Olympic medals. He won gold in 2006, silver in 2002 and 2010. How Plushenko will keep up with the likes of Chan and Hanyu is beyond me.

If you want a good laugh, check out his exhibition routine to Tom Jones ‘Sex Bomb’ on YouTube. Little wonder it has close to a million views.

The US will be represented by 28-year-old Jeremy Abbott and 19-year-old Jason Brown. Abbott is the reining national champion thanks to a gritty performance last month in Boston. I don't see Abbott making the podium – he was ninth in Vancouver in 2010.

If the quad didn’t matter, Jason Brown would be a favorite. Brown was terrific at last month's U.S. Championships. I absolutely love his skating. Both his short program and free skate are joys to watch. His jumps are big and effortless. There are no worries about taking the big splat on a quad because he doesn’t attempt one. His spins are the best I have seen any male skater perform. His footwork (steps) in his River Dance free skate were so full of energy they put an entire building on its feet.

Brown is a great performer and is quickly becoming the sport’s most popular skater here in the States. I will be eager to see how he is received in Russia.

300pairs.jpgPairs competition
Look out: the Russians are coming. Russia will be represented by three teams, all of whom are capable of winning a medal.

The favorites are Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov. They are the current World Champions and come loaded with power, a classic style, and huge moves. Trankov is prone to errors on his jumps, which could open the door for other teams.

My personal favorite pair team is Germany's Aliona Savachenko and Robin Szolkowy. Aliona is 30 and Robin is 34, which is impressive in itself. This pair has been together for 11 years. They are four-time World Champions, and won the bronze in Vancouver. This team's chemistry on the ice is second to none. They will be skating to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker in the free skate. If they perform the Pas De Deux like they did at the 2013 Grand Prix Final, they should win.

The 2010 Olympic silver medalists, Pang Qing and Tong Jian of China, are now 33 and 34 years old. After skating together for more than 20 years, this pair got engaged in 2011. The proposal took place on center ice after a performance in Shanghai. Imagine training together for 23 years, then planning to spend the rest of your life together. Now, that's what I call commitment.

New England's own Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir form the top American pair team. I thought Marissa and Simon were outstanding after seeing them win their second national championship in Boston last month. They are very athletic, fast and powerful. Marissa reminds me so much of Kitty Carruthers, who won Olympic silver with her brother Peter in 1988. Tough. Very tough.

Marissa and Simon will be one of the few pair teams attempting a quad throw. If they hit it, I think they could end up in the top five. If other teams crash, they could do even better.

The United States' best hope for a gold medal in figure skating is without a doubt ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White. They are the world champions and have transformed ice dancing more than any team since Torvill and Dean.

Get ready for some great figure skating. Dreams will come true, and the next miracle performance may be right around the corner.

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