By Karen Price | March 27, 2017, 3:51 p.m. (ET)
Nathan Chen salutes the fans prior to the medal ceremony at the ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships at Gangneung Ice Arena on Feb. 19, 2017 in Gangneung, South Korea.

 

Much will be on the line when the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships open on Wednesday in Helsinki, Finland.

The best athletes from around the world will not only be competing for medals but also to determine the number of athletes their countries will send to PyeongChang for the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.

The United States will have a total of 15 skaters competing in Helsinki, including six 2014 Olympians. Here are some of the biggest storylines to watch for heading into the competition:

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Will Ashley Wagner find her way back to the podium?

When Wagner won a silver medal at last year’s worlds, she ended a 10-year drought during which time the U.S. women had failed to medal at both the world championships and Olympic Winter Games. Since then, however, the results have been mixed for Wagner, 25. She won Skate America in the fall but failed to make the Grand Prix Final, and then despite going into the U.S. championships as a favorite, she finished second to Karen Chen. Even with the performance of her career, Wagner will have to get past Russian Evgenia Medvedeva, who is ranked first in the world and heavily favored to win. If she does, she will become the first back-to-back world champion since Michelle Kwan in 2000 and 2001. Wagner, a 2014 Olympian, is ranked fifth in the world.

 

How will Karen Chen and Mariah Bell fare in their first world championships?

Chen, 17, was the surprise winner at the U.S. championships in January, but she has yet to be a contender in a major international competition. Bell, 20, who is the U.S. bronze medalist, is in a similar position. Both will be making their world championship debut this year. Both women struggled at the Four Continents Championships last month, with Bell finishing sixth and Chen 12th. And both spoke afterwards about nerves being an issue, with Chen also having the added challenge of boot problems causing ankle pain at the competition. Chen is now in new boots and also re-choreographed some of her footwork, but in order for Team USA to qualify three skaters for PyeongChang, two of the three women have to turn in strong performances, creating even more pressure. Which brings us to our next question:

 

How many Olympic spots will Team USA earn for 2018?

The results of the world championships will determine how many athletes each country sends to the Winter Games in 2018. In order for a nation to qualify the maximum three athletes in a discipline, then the placements of its top two skaters (or teams) in any given category can’t be greater than 13 when combined. So, for instance, if Wagner finishes third and Chen finishes 10th, then Team USA would be able to send three women to PyeongChang. But if, for example, Nathan Chen finishes fourth and Jason Brown finishes 10th, then Team USA would send only two men. The same holds true for pairs and ice dance.

 

Will Nathan Chen complete his breakthrough season with a world title?

Chen, 17, put the world on notice this season, from winning a silver medal at the Grand Prix Final, making him the second-youngest skater ever to medal at the event, to earning the U.S. title to his victory at the Four Continents Championship, where he landed five quads, which had the highest total score in the world this season (307.46) and topped a field that included the reigning Olympic champion, Japanese skater Yuzuru Hanyu. Chen will face much of the same competition in Finland that he did at Four Continents, plus two-time world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain.

 

How will Jason Brown fare?

Brown, 22, missed both the national and world championships in 2016 because of a back injury, and spent part of this season dealing with a stress fracture in his right fibula. Still, he finished third at this year’s U.S. championships and was named to his second world championship team. Brown, a 2014 Olympian, also finished sixth at Four Continents and is ranked No. 6 in the world. He has long been regarded for his grace and artistry, but as skaters such as Chen have pushed the envelope with multiple quad jumps per program, Brown just landed his first quad in competition last October.

 

Can a U.S. ice dancing duo rise to the top spot?

The “Shib Sibs” are now repeat U.S. champions, although they were outscored in the free dance this year by 2015 champions Madison Chock, 24, and Evan Bates, 28. Both duos are contenders to reach the podium, as they did last year at the world championships when Maia Shibutani, 22, and Alex Shibutani, 25, took silver and Chock and Bates the bronze. Meanwhile, U.S. bronze medalists and 2014 Four Continents champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue will also represent the United States. However, the U.S. teams will have to contend with several pairs that are certainly capable of winning the title, beginning with Canadians and 2010 Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. The duo returned to competition this year and took first at the Four Continents as well as the Grand Prix Final. Then there are the two-time defending world champions from France, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, who finished second at the Grand Prix Final.

 

How will Scimeca Knierim and Knierim fare having competed just once this season?

Four Continents was the first competition this season for newlyweds Chris Knierim, 29, and Alexa Scimeca Knierim, 25, whose three abdominal surgeries late last summer and fall forced them to withdraw from the grand prix series and U.S. championships. They weren’t able to start practicing again full time until January, but successfully petitioned to be on both the Four Continents and world championships teams and finished sixth at Four Continents last month. Even with the layoff, their score was the second highest by a U.S. pair in international competition under the current system. Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier will also represent the United States in Helsinki.

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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  02/28/2017