Figure skating undoubtedly will take center stage in Sochi, especially considering the sport’s long-running popularity and history of success in the Olympic host country of Russia. There is no question the Russians will be coming to this event fully armed but Team USA will be sending some of the top skaters in the world and expects to return with a handful of medals. A sport with such Olympic history it actually predates the Winter Games and had been featured as part of the summer Games, figure skating once again is expected to be one of the hottest sports of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games.TEAM USA CONTENDERS
|Meryl Davis and Charlie White skate in the Smucker's Skating
Spectacular event during the Skate America competition at the
ShoWare Center on Oct. 21, 2012 in Kent, Wash.
Considered the top U.S. contender for a gold medal in figure skating in Sochi is the ice dancing duo of Meryl Davis and Charlie White. And if the skaters from suburban Detroit can pull it off and win the gold medal, they will be the first American team to win an Olympic ice dancing title. The sport made its debut in the Winter Games in 1976 and since then only three American ice dancing teams have medaled in the Olympic Winter Games: Colleen O’Connor and Jim Milns (bronze, 1976), Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto (silver, 2006), and Davis and White (silver, 2010).
Ashley Wagner, a two-time U.S. champion, is among the leading women in the world having claimed the bronze medal at the International Skating Union’s Grand Prix Final in December. She and Gracie Gold represented Team USA at the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships and Wagner placed fifth and Gold placed sixth. Their combined finish earned Team USA three spots for the Winter Games in Sochi. Among others expected to contend for a spot on the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team are: Agnes Zawadzki, Christina Gao and Courtney Hicks. Mirai Nagasu and Rachael Flatt, both of whom represented Team USA in Vancouver, are also vying for a spot in Sochi.
Among the U.S. men contenders include 2013 national champion Max Aaron, 2010 Olympian Jeremy Abbott and Adam Rippon. Evan Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic champion, called off his attempt to repeat after battling injuries.
In pairs, watch for Caydee Denney, a 2010 Olympian, and John Coughlin, 2013 U.S. champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir and Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim.
ICE DANCING RIVALS
Meryl Davis and Charlie White lost to Canadian rivals and training mates Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir by less than six points at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. But Davis and White have pretty much dominated the discipline since then. They defeated Virtue and Moir to win the 2011 world championship and more recently won the gold medal over Virtue and Moir with an international scoring record of 191.35 points at the 2013 ISU Grand Prix Final in Japan. Davis and White have won two world titles and five Grand Prix Final championships. The two teams train together in Canton, Mich., with the same coach, Marina Zoueva. “We have a really great rivalry with Scott and Tessa from Canada,” Davis said. “They’re an incredibly talented team and we’ve been competing directly against them since before we were teenagers. The rivalry has pushed the two of us to heights that I don’t know we would have reached without that rivalry.”VISIONS OF KWAN
|Ashley Wagner performs during the ISU World Figure Skating Championships on March 31, 2012 in Nice, France.
Ashley Wagner, who just missed making the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team, is the first repeat national women’s champion since Michelle Kwan won eight in a row from 1998 to 2005. Wagner will go after a three-peat at the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston. A medal in Boston likely would land her a spot on the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team. Born on a U.S. Army base in Heidelberg, Germany, Wagner learned how to skate in Alaska at 5. She currently trains in Southern California. She is seeking to become the first women’s Olympic gold medalist for the United States since Sarah Hughes in 2002. The last American woman to medal in the Winter Games is Sasha Cohen, who earned a silver medal in 2006.
NEXT UP: BOSTON
All attention is on Boston. Performances at the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Jan. 9-12 at TD Garden in Boston will play a huge part in determining the 15 figure skating nominations for the U.S. Olympic Team. The U.S. Olympic Team will consist of three women, two men, two pairs teams and three ice dancing teams.
The United States will have three spots in the Olympic women’s competition for the first time since 2006 when the team featured Sasha Cohen (silver), Kimmie Meissner (sixth) and Emily Hughes (seventh). Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold finished high enough at the 2013 world championships to earn three spots in Sochi. This was especially important for Wagner, since she just missed out on making the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team. She placed third at the 2010 nationals and only two women were named to the team that competed in Vancouver (Mirai Nagasu and Rachael Flatt).
U.S. figure skaters have medaled in 17 consecutive Olympic Winter Games, dating back to 1948. Team USA has excelled especially in the women’s competition. Team USA won multiple women’s medals most recently at the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games, the Nagano 1998 Olympic Winter Games and the Albertville 1992 Olympic Winter Games. Of the 46 figure skating medals won by the United States, 14 of them have been gold and all of them in the individual categories.SEEKING AN OLYMPIC RETURN
|Caydee Denney and John Coughlin show off their bronze medals at the pairs awards ceremony during Skate America at the ShoWare Center on Oct. 20, 2012 in Kent, Wash.
Pairs skater Caydee Denney turned to figure skating when she was 9 after watching Tara Lipinski win an Olympic gold medal in 1998. Both of Denney’s parents were world-class roller skaters and Caydee followed in their roller skates to become a national champion. But she switched to ice skating and that led her to her first Olympic berth in pairs with Jeremy Barrett at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. She hopes to make a second Olympic appearance in Sochi with John Coughlin. The two won the national championship in pairs in 2012 but had to withdraw from the 2013 nationals when Coughlin had an injury to his hip that was surgically repaired in December 2012. In the ISU Grand Prix Series this season, they finished fourth at Hilton HHonors Skate America and third at the Trophée Eric Bompard in Paris.
The 2014 figure skating competition will be held at the Iceberg Skating Palace, which is located within the coastal cluster of facilities at Olympic Park. The arena has a seating capacity of 12,000 and also will be the venue for the short track speedskating competition. The only days there is no figure skating in the Olympic Winter Games are the days of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Following the Winter Games, the Iceberg Skating Palace will be used as a multipurpose sports arena and cultural facility. It was host to the ISU Grand Prix Final in December 2012.
DATES TO REMEMBER
The popular figure skating competition will take up nearly the entire duration of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, beginning the day before the Opening Ceremony and ending the day before the Closing Ceremony. Medals will be awarded on five of the 11 competition days, beginning with the new team program Feb. 9. Other medal-round days include the ice dancing free skate Feb. 17 and the women’s free skate Feb. 20. The gala exhibition featuring many of the medal winners will be held Feb. 22 at the Iceberg Skating Place. The Closing Ceremony is Feb. 23.THE MEDALS
For the first time in Olympic history, five sets of medals will be handed out in figure skating. Competition will be held in women’s, men’s, pairs and ice dancing. The new competition is a team event, which is one of eight new disciplines being introduced in Sochi. The United States won two figure skating medals at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games: Evan Lysacek won the men’s competition, and Meryl Davis and Charlie White earned the silver medal in ice dancing.
NEW GAME IN TOWN: THE TEAM
|Gracie Gold celebrates with teammates after her free skate at the ISU World Team Trophy at Yoyogi National Gymnasium on April 13, 2013 in Tokyo.
Figure skating will become a team sport in Sochi with the Olympic debut of the team competition. The new concept calls for each team to consist of a women’s skater, men’s skater, an ice dancing team and a pairs team. The competition will begin Feb. 6 with short programs in pairs and men. The women’s and ice dancing short programs will follow two nights later. After the first round of short programs, the 10 teams will then be cut to the top five for the free programs, which will determine the medal winners. Skaters may be substituted between the short and long programs.
The person who might be best known for not only dominating international figure skating but changing the sport, was Dick Button. He won the U.S. men’s national championship every year from 1946 to 1952 and won the gold medal at the St. Moritz 1948 Olympic Winter Games and the Oslo 1952 Olympic Winter Games. At the 1952 Winter Games, he became the first skater in any discipline to be placed first by every judge in every stage of the competition. He changed the sport with a menu of risky jumps, including the double Axel and triple loop. Until Button came along, no skater had landed either jump. Winner of the Sullivan Award in 1949, Button went on to become a recognizable TV commentator for figure skating. He remains the only U.S. figure skater ever to win two Olympic gold medals.
Of all the sports at the Winter Games, figure skating is the oldest. In fact, the first figure skating competition was held before the Winter Games even existed — in 1908 in London. Singles and pairs skating have been a regular part of Games since Paris in 1924. Ice dancing was added in 1976. Figure skating is one of the most popular sports in Russia, and its success dates back to the 1908 Olympic Games, when Russia’s Nikolai Panin-Kolomenkin won a gold medal in a discipline called “Special Figures.”
ABOUT THE SCORING
All of the disciplines involve a short program and a free (or long) program. In the short program, skaters must successfully complete seven compulsory elements, which are scored by a panel of judges who are sitting at ice level. The free program calls for skaters to perform a series of challenging jumps, spins and other athletic moves. A fall or a missed rotation on a jump can result in point deductions. Scoring and judging have always played prominent roles in figure skating. Following the judging scandal in the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games, the International Skating Union overhauled the sport’s scoring system and it has evolved into the system being used today.
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1990 and was Olympic assistant bureau chief for Morris Communications at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. He also writes about Olympic sports for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican. Bowker has written for TeamUSA.org since 2010 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.