With less than a year to go until the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, debates over who will be the athletes to beat in PyeongChang, South Korea are heating up all over the sports world.
This week, many of the athletes who will be in the spotlight in figure skating are actually in PyeongChang for the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, which will be held Wednesday through Sunday at the Gangneung Ice Arena as an Olympic test event.
The annual competition featuring skaters in all four disciplines from Africa, the Americas, Asia and Oceania is particularly noteworthy this year as skaters get into position to compete for Olympic berths next year. Here are some storylines to follow:
Can Nathan Chen Keep Up With The World’s Best?
One of hottest young skaters around is newly-crowned U.S. men’s champion Nathan Chen, the 17-year-old who has spent the past year establishing himself as an international contender with his powerful jumps and athleticism.
Joining Chen on the U.S. men’s roster are 2014 Olympian Jason Brown and Grant Hochstein, who will test themselves against some of the best in the world.
One of their competitors is nine-time Canadian national champion, 2014 Olympic silver medalist and defending Four Continents champion Patrick Chan. China’s Jin Boyang, the 2016 world bronze medalist, will also compete.
The reigning Japanese national champion Shoma Uno has said he plans to attempt three quad jumps in his free program, including the quad loop, which he has never landed successfully in competition.
The Americans will be up against reigning Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, who in October 2016 became the first skater to land a quad loop cleanly in international competition.
Quads are where Chen excels, however. He landed a record five of them in the free skate last month at the U.S. championships, where he became the youngest national men’s champion since 1966. Brown, the 2015 U.S. champion, was coming off a stress fracture in his right fibula at nationals but nonetheless earned a bronze medal, and Hochstein finished fourth. Brown plans to add his quad in for Four Continents.
Up-And-Comers Have A Chance To Shine In Women’s Field
The U.S. women’s contingent is strong, even with reigning 2016 world and 2017 U.S. silver medalist Ashley Wagner sitting out the competition in order to focus on worlds.
U.S. champion Karen Chen is fresh off her win, in which she set an American scoring record after her short program. Chen, 17, was 12th in her Four Continents debut last year. Another up-and-comer, 20-year-old Mariah Bell, and Mirai Nagasu will also compete for the United States. Bell finished third at this year’s national championships and Nagasu fourth. Nagasu, who replaced Wagner on the roster, won silver at last year’s Four Continents as well as a bronze in 2011.
Japanese three-time national champion and reigning Four Continents champion Satoko Miyahara will miss the competition because of a stress fracture in her left hip. While none of the 2016 world championship medalists will be competing, the U.S. women will face three-time Canadian national champion Kaetlyn Osmond, who earned a spot in this season’s Grand Prix Final and is considered a favorite to win at Four Continents.
The Knierims, But What Will They Look Like?
One of the biggest mysteries entering the competition comes from the U.S. pair of Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim. The husband-and-wife pair haven’t competed all season as Scimeca Knierim recovered from unspecified abdominal surgery in the fall, but they successfully petitioned to be included on the Four Continents and world championship rosters.
They’ll be joined on the U.S. roster by newly-crowned national champions Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, who took the 2015-16 season off after Denney had knee surgery, and bronze medalists Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc.
Anyone wanting to win the title will have to get past two-time and reigning world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford of Canada. In addition to their world titles in 2015 and ’16, Duhamel and Radford are also two-time Four Continents champions. Last year’s world silver medalists, Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China, will also compete, although they are somewhat of an unknown as well as Sui is coming off surgeries on both feet last May.
Americans Remain Among The Favorites In Dance
All eyes will certainly be on the American sister-brother duo of Maia and Alex Shibutani in ice dance, where the United States has been strong for years. The “Shib Sibs” won silver at last year’s world championships and this year defended their national title while also capturing bronze at the Grand Prix Final.
Madison Chock and Evan Bates are no strangers to the podium, either, with silver medals at both the 2015 and 2016 Four Continents Championships, silver at the 2015 world championships and bronze at the 2016 world championships. At nationals last month, they won the free dance, narrowing the gap between themselves and the Shibutanis.
Rounding out the formidable U.S. squad will be Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, who won gold at the 2014 Four Continents Championships and have qualified for the Grand Prix Final the past two seasons.
Among the Americans’ toughest competition will be 2010 Olympic gold medalists and 2014 silver medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada.