What to watch for at worlds
Since Gracie Gold returned last month from her Olympic debut and fourth-place finish in Sochi, she has attended the "Divergent" movie premiere, watched "Dancing with the Stars" alongside Kristi Yamaguchi and reportedly accepted a YouTube invitation to prom.
The biggest prize, however, will be found not on the red carpet but rather on the ice. Gold hopes to become the first American woman to win a world title since Kimmie Meissner in 2006 at this week's world championships in Saitama, Japan.
With Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova of Russia and South Korea's Kim Yu-na, the 2010 champion and 2014 silver medalist, not competing in the event, Gold definitely has a shot at reaching the medal podium. Her toughest competition likely will come from Italy's Carolina Kostner, the 2012 world champion and bronze medalist in Sochi; Julia Lipnitskaia, who helped Russia win the team gold medal but placed a disappointing fifth in the women's event; and Japan's Mao Asada, who rallied from a dismal 16th-place showing in the short program to place third in the free skate and sixth overall in Sochi.
Gold won the 2014 U.S. title and was the highest U.S. women's finisher in Sochi. She will be joined at worlds by fellow Sochi teammates Ashley Wagner, a two-time U.S. champion who was seventh at the Olympics, and 15-year-old Polina Edmunds, who finished ninth in Sochi.
In addition to reaching the medal stand, the big goal for the American women is to secure three spots for Team USA next year. Gold and Wagner combined for a high enough finish last year to garner three spots for both the Olympics and 2014 worlds. The top two American skaters must have their placements combine to be equal or less than 13 (in other words, if two of the three skaters finish third and 10th) to earn three spots next year.
Why is this so important now? Because if the women continue to get three spots at worlds, it will put the Americans in better position to earn three spots leading up to the next Winter Olympics in 2018. Wagner, who missed a spot on the 2010 team when she placed third at nationals and then helped Team USA earn a third spot for Sochi, knows all too well how important it is to keep three spots available.
The world championships in an Olympic year are somewhat an afterthought, but considering how much attention and controversy surrounded the sport in Sochi, the worlds just might attract a little bit more of the spotlight than usual.
Here is a look at what's ahead this week in Saitama:
The women's competition in Sochi had its share of drama as Sotnikova was the surprise winner. Many experts predicted a Russian woman would win in Sochi, but most were putting their rubles on Lipnitskaia, a 15-year-old who can make Sasha Cohen cringe with her flexibility. Sotnikova, a four-time Russian national champion, was so overlooked by her own country that she wasn't even entered into the team competition at the Olympics. But Sotnikova used that as fuel for the women's competition and blew everyone away with a demanding technical program to become the first Russian woman to win the Olympic gold medal.
At the worlds, Lipnitskaia will be the one trying to prove herself. The last Russian woman to win the world crown was Irina Slutskaya in 2005, when the championships were held in Moscow.
What fans won't see is a rematch between Sotnikova and Kim. South Korea continues to protest the Olympic result, but its frustrations (and belated time in voicing its outrage) have not persuaded the International Skating Union to act.
Asada, meanwhile, had been expected to finish on the medal stand in Sochi, as she is the only woman in the field who has landed triple Axels in competition. No doubt she will have the pressure of competing in Japan, but with the big pressure of the Olympics behind her, perhaps she will feel more relaxed at worlds. Asada, a two-time world champion, last won the event in 2010. Two other Japanese women should be in the competitive mix -- Akiko Suzuki was eighth at the Winter Games, while Kanako Murakami placed 12th.
On the American front, Gold led the way and showed that her work over the past several months with coach Frank Carroll has paid off. Since she moved to Southern California in September to work with Carroll, who guided Michelle Kwan to the world title and Evan Lysacek to the Olympic gold medal, Gold has turned out more consistent performances.
In Sochi, Wagner under-rotated her triple flip-triple toe combination in her short and long programs and the short program for the team event. To finish among the top three at worlds, she needs to land a clean triple-triple. Edmunds, who will be competing in just her second senior-level international competition, has two triple-triples planned in her free skate.
There is one guarantee in Saitama: A new men's world champion will be crowned. Patrick Chan, who won the past three men's world titles and the 2014 Olympic silver medal, has withdrawn from the event.
Yuzuru Hanyu, who won the Olympic gold medal despite two falls in his free skate, will be the favorite in his home country of Japan. Hanyu's training mate, Javier Fernandez of Spain, finished fourth in Sochi and is still kicking himself because he overdid it with triple Salchows and it cost him a spot on the podium. Bronze medalist Denis Ten opted not to compete at worlds.
Jeremy Abbott, who crashed face-first into the boards during his short program in Sochi but rallied with an exceptionally strong finish, is hoping not to have such an eventful showing in Japan. Abbott is a four-time U.S. champion, but his best finish at worlds was fifth in 2010. His last trip to worlds came in 2012, when he finished eighth.
Jason Brown, who was ninth in his Olympic debut in Sochi and has become an Internet sensation after his "Riverdance" routine captivated audiences at nationals, will not be in Japan for worlds. Only two U.S. men could compete in this event, and U.S. Figure Skating's international committee selected 2013 U.S. men's champion Max Aaron to compete instead. Aaron is one of the few U.S. men with multiple quads in his program, and he said he plans to attempt two in his free skate.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White became the first Americans to win an Olympic ice dancing gold medal in Sochi, but they traded their skates for dancing shoes this month to compete on "Dancing with the Stars" instead of vying for a world title. Davis and White were also the first Americans to win world titles, claiming crowns in 2011 and 2013. Their top rivals, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the 2010 Olympic champions from Canada, also opted not to compete.
The door appears open for Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov, the Russian duo that dazzled with its rendition to "Swan Lake" in the free dance in Sochi, to win a world title. French veterans Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat could also contend.
The top American hope is expected to come from U.S. silver medalists Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who were eighth in Sochi. Maia and Alex Shibutani, who placed ninth in the Olympics, have a special connection to Japan as their mother, Naomi, was born there. Filling in for Davis and White at worlds is the team of Alexandra Aldridge and Daniel Eaton. All three U.S. teams train in suburban Detroit.
The reigning Olympic champions, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, will not compete in Japan, meaning the likely battle for the world crown will be between Russia's Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov and Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy. Two-time U.S. pairs champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir were ninth in their Olympic debut in Sochi. Team USA also will be represented by Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay, who were 12th at the Olympics and are late replacements for Caydee Denney and John Coughlin. Denney injured her ankle, forcing the team to withdraw last week.