U.S. women will be on podium
U.S. medal far from a given
Anyone who too quickly discounts the chances for an American woman to reach the Olympic medal stand in figure skating at the Sochi Olympics needs to be reminded of Sarah Hughes.
At age 16, Hughes beat out favorites Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya and won the gold medal in 2002, the first and only American woman to pull off the feat without ever having won either a world or U.S. senior national title.
The point? Unlike any other competition, the Olympics are unpredictable, often highly dramatic and come down to the athlete who can handle the pressure the best.
In Hughes' case, she may have been too young to fully grasp how much was at stake, and that may fit the profile of 18-year-old Gracie Gold, who is the 2013 U.S. silver medalist, recently won a bronze medal at Skate Canada and is now coached by the renown Frank Carroll.
A better bet though: Two-time national champion Ashley Wagner, who fits the profile of someone who can certainly contend for a medal with Kim Yu-Na, the defending Olympic and world champion, Italy’s Carolina Kostner, a medalist in the past three world championships, and Japan’s Mao Asada, the 2010 Olympic silver medalist.
Now that Wagner has performed a triple-triple in competition, the 22-year-old can rely on her natural charm and gritty competitiveness to become the first American woman on the medal stand since Sasha Cohen won silver in Turin in 2006.
Telling will be what happens this weekend in Paris at the 2013 Trophee Eric Bompard, an ISU Grand Prix event like Skate America, where Wagner’s biggest competition will be Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia and Elizaveta Tuktamysheva and American Christina Gao.
Like the Olympics, it all depends on the night. And Wagner's happy-go-lucky attitude, which she displayed in Detroit at Skate America last month, is to her advantage.
Ashley Wagner has all the hallmarks of a future figure skating champion. The 22-year-old has a holster full of sponsors heading into the 2014 Sochi Olympics. She has won the past two U.S. national championship titles and she just missed the Vancouver Olympics four years ago.
But can she win the gold? Can any American come close? Americans like their Olympic heroines to be destined for a medal; and certainly that’s a possibility this year, but it is far from a given.
At the 2013 world championships, Wagner finished fifth and fellow American Gracie Gold was sixth. The two aren't yet household names, but are the strongest contenders the United States has had since the days of Michelle Kwan and Sarah Hughes.
But the Olympics are an international event, and as much as we love our favorites, there is a larger field to consider.
South Korea's Kim Yu-Na crushed the competition at worlds, scoring 218.31 points, 20 more than silver medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy. Mao Asada of Japan plans to retire after the 2014 Games, offering additional incentive to her and teammate Kanako Murakami, who finished fourth at worlds. Kim and Asada also won gold and silver, respectively, at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
Last month, Hughes told me there haven't been as many skating events leading up to the Games on national TV, which has kept Gold and Wagner from a proper introduction.
During the Sochi Games, American audiences will be introduced to the skaters on the national team in the same way they get to know gymnasts during the Summer Olympics. There is also an Olympic team skating event (based on country) for the first time.
As for the Americans' medal odds? Gold and Wagner provide a strong combination for the team event, but individual medal hopes are far from a given.