Twelve ladies, three spots: The top US Olympic team contenders of 2013-2014

Alissa Czisny

By Kitty Xie

The American ladies, with their glorious tradition of technical prowess and artistic excellence, have been a force to be reckoned with in the past five decades of competitive figure skating.

In the past, precocious upstarts, including former phenoms Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski, and Sasha Cohen, have catapulted through the ranks and into legend when the Olympic season rolls through town. Other times, the best-known display of athletic greatness in the world heralds the breakthrough of a future champion.

The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver marked the first time since 1964 that a US woman failed to stand on the ladies’ figure skating podium. Though the next few years were tough and the global camera panned out to other eminent skating nations like Japan and Russia, the U.S. never wanted for an embarrassment of talented ladies. Now, nearly one Olympic cycle later, the American figure skating community believes it can assemble a feminine triumvirate of grace, gold and glory to re-establish its prestige at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

So, without further ado, here is my preview of the top contenders for the three available Olympic spots – or, why we should be optimistic to the point of insanity.

Samantha CESARIO

Samantha Cesario Samantha Cesario at the 2013 World Junior Championships in Milano, Italy

 Age: 19

Trains In: Oceanside, New York

Coached By: Peter Burrows, MaryLynn Gelderman, Jana Brazee, Kyoko Ina, Jason Briggs

A Contender Because: She isn’t known for capering girlishness on the ice, instead choosing to skate to emotionally loaded music like Carmen and Black Swan. The fact that she can do it convincingly—convincingly enough, at least, to place fourth at the World Junior Championships—shows refreshing moxie and spunk.

A Caution Because: Due to back-to-back injuries that halted her training, Cesario hasn’t yet competed internationally as a senior. Her eighth-place finish at this year’s US Championships suggests she would benefit from a few more seasons of home-ice immersion before heading out to conquer the world stage.

Alissa CZISNY

Alissa Czisny Alissa Czisny at the 2010-2011 Grand Prix Final in Beijing, China

 Age: 26

Trains In: Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

Coached By: Yuka Sato, Jason Dungjen

A Contender Because: A veteran, she largely led the US women from 2008 to 2011, and was the 2011 US champion. When she spins, the whole world stops to watch; this attentiveness to technical detail helped her finish fifth at the 2011 World Championships.

A Caution Because: After two hip surgeries that took her out of training for months, she’s at last stated that she’ll be making a bid for the 2014 Olympic team. However, with all the time she’s lost, not to mention the severity of her injuries, she may find it difficult to return to top competitive form.

Polina EDMUNDS

Polina Edmunds Polina Edmunds at the 2013 US Figure Skating Championships in Omaha, Nebraska

Age: 15

Trains In: San Jose, California

Coached By: Nina Edmunds, David Glynn

A Contender Because: In January, she defeated several seasoned competitors for the US junior title. She almost seems to float across the ice, combining advanced jumps and soft lyricism into a remarkable package that belies her age.

A Caution Because: She has skated in just one international competition, and as a junior at that. Most likely, she’ll opt to make her Junior Grand Prix debut in the fall, and, domestically, may decide to defend her national title rather than stepping up to the senior level. This should also give her time to correct her habit of under-rotating her jumps.

Rachael FLATT

Rachael Flatt Rachael Flatt at the 2009 Cup of China in Beijing, China

 Age: 20

Trains In: Palo Alto, California

Coached By: Justin Dillon, Lynn Smith

A Contender Because: At 17, she finished seventh at the Vancouver Olympics, holding her own against a tough field of former World Champions. The American press didn’t dub her “Reliable Rachael” for nothing—for several years, she was the rock of the US team, and achieved more-than-decent results with her poise and consistency.

A Caution Because: Since 2011, leg and hip injuries have kept her from performing to her fullest ability. As of now, her skating career seems to be indefinitely on hold while she pursues higher education at Stanford University.

Christina GAO

Christina Gao Christina Gao at the 2013 Four Continents Championships in Osaka, Japan

 Age: 18

Trains In: Boston, Massachusetts

Coached By: Mark Mitchell, Peter Johansson

A Contender Because: This season has been her story. After winning her first-ever Grand Prix medal (a silver) at 2012 Skate America, she proved it wasn’t a fluke by showing two solid skates at Nationals to place fifth. She holds it together under pressure, listens to the music, and was the highest American finisher at the 2013 Four Continents Championships.

A Caution Because: Gao’s pre-2012 records give little indication of her being competitive on the senior international stage. She has yet to medal at the US Championships, where the results usually determine the Olympic team, and, without the hardest jump layouts, she and her team will need a strategy for racking up points elsewhere.

Gracie GOLD

 Gracie GoldGracie Gold at the 2013 World Championships in London, Ontario, Canada

 Age: 17

Trains In: Chicago, Illinois

Coached By: Alex Ouriashev, Oleg Epstein, Toni Hickey

A Contender Because: No one can dispute her imminent crowning as the next big thing of US ladies’ skating. She quelled her new-senior jitters faster than you can say, “What a name.” Her debut World Championships saw her in a hearty sixth place, and only one lady in the world – reigning Olympic champion Yuna Kim – has better jumps.

A Caution Because: Despite her progress in staying focused, her nerves can still resurface at the worst times, costing her valuable points. Stiffness and expressionlessness are her biggest demons, detracting from the musical quality of her programs and calling for expert attention.

Courtney HICKS

Courtney Hicks Courtney Hicks at the 2013 US Figure Skating Championships in Omaha, Nebraska

 Age: 17

Trains In: Aliso Viejo and El Segundo, California

Coached By: John Nicks, Ken Congemi

A Contender Because: She jumps big, smiles big, performs big, and moves fast. Her pewter medal at this year’s Nationals was a testament to her determination to overcome the training lost from a broken leg. At the World Junior Championships, she finished a respectable fifth.

A Caution Because: Having no senior international experience makes her a dark horse and a wildcard for an Olympic berth. While she has the chops to be competitive almost anywhere, a lack of polish requires refinement before she’ll be ready to go head-to-head with the big girls.

Mirai NAGASU

Mirai Nagasu Mirai Nagasu at the 2013 US Figure Skating Championships in Omaha, Nebraska

 Age: 19

Trains In: Burbank, California

Coached By: Wendy Olson, Amy Evidente

A Contender Because: This wouldn’t be her first Olympics, either – at the age of 16, she placed a stunning fourth in Vancouver with skates that would have made the podium at any other Winter Olympics in history. Crowds adore her musicality and unfeigned joy, she’s an international pro, and she can spin like helicopter propellers preparing for takeoff.

A Caution Because: The past few years have been hard on her, what with coaching changes and creeping technical issues. Several under-rotated jumps led to merciless deductions at the most recent US Championships, where she placed seventh for the second year in a row. She can do better – much better – but she doesn’t have long to prove it.

Ashley WAGNER

Ashley Wagner Ashley Wagner at the 2013 US Figure Skating Championships in Omaha, Nebraska

Age: 21

Trains In: Aliso Viejo, California

Coached By: John Nicks

A Contender Because: The first woman to repeat as US champion (2012 & 2013) since Michelle Kwan in 2005, Wagner’s rise to the top has been swift and unchallenged. It doesn’t hurt to have John Nicks, the octogenarian coach of more than 30 US and World medalists, refining her show-stopping style and turning her into the one to beat.

A Caution Because: Despite her vast artistic improvement, Wagner has mostly avoided attempting the most difficult jumps for the past competitive season, even at Worlds. At the Olympics, where medal contenders will be looking to wring mere hundredths of points from the scoring system, she’ll want all of the technical credit she can get.

Angela WANG

Angela Wang Angela Wang at the 2013 US Figure Skating Championships in Omaha, Nebraska

 Age: 16

Trains In: Colorado Springs, Colorado

Coached By: Kristy Krall, Damon Allen, Janet Champion

A Contender Because: She’s pushing the envelope, technically and artistically, with her powerful jumping passes and impressive musicality. After having competed in the US Senior Championships for two years, she should have a pretty good feel for how things work at the highest level of competitive skating.

A Caution Because: International events have seen little of her. Without any World Championships or even Senior Grands Prix under her belt, she would be far out of her comfort zone at a high-pressure, higher-stakes competition such as the Olympic Games.

Agnes ZAWADZKI

Agnes Zawadzki Agnes Zawadzki at the 2012 NHK Trophy in Sendai, Japan

 Age: 18

Trains In: Colorado Springs, Colorado

Coached By: David Santee, Kristy Krall

A Contender Because: Twice a US bronze medalist, Zawadzki saw great success on the junior level before making the switch to senior in 2010. Her huge, flowing jumps, superb choreography, and ease of movement across the ice make her a feast for the eyes.

A Caution Because: Of her six Grand Prix events from 2010 to 2012, she only has one medal – a bronze, at the 2012 Rostelecom Cup – to show. She frequently battles with stamina and has never competed at a World Championships. And at the Olympics, where skaters lean heavily on their previous international experience, comfort is a key.

Caroline ZHANG

Caroline Zhang Caroline Zhang at the 2013 US Figure Skating Championships in Omaha, Nebraska

Age: 19

Trains In: Artesia, California

Coached By: Peter Oppegard, Karen Kwan-Oppegard

A Contender Because: Her star shone bright and early – in 2006, to be exact, when she decimated the competition at her debut Junior Grand Prix events. Since then, she’s been known for her lovely presentation, as well as for her flexibility in executing her signature “pearl spin.”

A Caution Because: Due to coaching difficulties in her youth, Zhang has historically had trouble landing ratified triple jumps. In recent years, these hard-to-correct flaws have prevented her from winning medals at her own national championships, and usually incur severe penalties on the global stage.

Photos: Getty Images, Reuters, Feng Li, Jay Adeff, Atsushi Tomura, Ronald Martinez, Jim Young

 

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