The 2010 Winter Olympics marked a sort of sea change in figure skating. It was the first time in 50 years that figure skaters from the Soviet Union and its subsequent iterations failed to win a gold medal in any of the disciplines. It was also the first time since the 1960 Games that no European skaters glided away with titles.
With the 2014 Olympics playing out on Russian ice and snow for the first time, there is heightened pressure for the home team and home continent to atone for past spills. But even with a new crop of candidates, getting on the podium won't be easy.
In past years, fortunes of U.S. figure skaters could be broken down as such: singles skaters, typically among the best in the world, competed for the gold medals; pairs skaters vied for the bronzes; and dance teams, bearing little resemblance to Astaire and Rogers, would try to sneak into the top 10. In today's skating world, the paradigm is nearly upside-down. The American team's strongest shot at a gold medal is in the dance event, while the pairs and the singles skaters, especially the U.S. men, may be out of luck.
The world championships in London, Ontario, next month will not only be a potential harbinger of Olympic fortune, but they will also be a qualifier for positions in the Games themselves. And every country will have the magic number of 13 in mind.
Each country is allowed up to three entries per figure skating discipline, for a maximum of 12. Teams have two options in order to qualify three entries in an event: They either need to win a gold or silver medal in that event at the world championships; or the team needs to have the magic number 13, achieved by adding the places of the top two finishers in that event at worlds.
For example, if a country's top two men's skaters place fifth and eighth at worlds, then that country will have a full complement of three men's skaters at the Olympics. If, however, that same country's top two ladies' finishers place fifth and ninth at worlds, which adds up to 14, its team will receive only two entries in that event.
Based on its mixed results over the past few years, the U.S. team, for instance, will have to ace the tests in Canada to bring a full team to Sochi.
With the Sochi Games a year away, here's an overview of the four mainstay figure skating events. Keep in mind that Sochi will also mark the Olympic debut of a team competition that will start one day before the opening ceremony.
Evan Lysacek of the U.S. won the Olympic singles title in 2010 without landing a quad -- a feat unlikely to be repeated. Today, the four-revolution jump is a necessity for title contenders.
Two-time reigning world champ Patrick Chan of Canada will enter worlds this year as a favorite to win gold. If he succeeds, he'll be a similar favorite in Sochi. But after two nearly perfect seasons in which he established himself as an early Olympic front-runner, he hit a snafu in October when he opened his season by finishing last in a six-man field at the Japan Open. He also won silver in front of his home fans at Skate Canada and bronze at the Grand Prix final at the Olympic rink in Sochi.
He's skating an ambitious program to Puccini's La Boheme this season and already claims, in advance of worlds, "I am an underdog now." With a new coach, new choreographer and new perspective of not being atop the podium in every completion, Chan is at least vulnerable for now.
One skater who could step up and top Chan is Javier Fernandez. Just call him the Quad King -- the Spaniard won a surprise European title this season, the first in his nation's history, by landing three quadruple jumps in what stands now as the most ambitious, if not quite the cleanest, program in the world. "When I stepped on the podium," Fernandez recalled after the completion, "I was thinking, 'This cannot be possible.' " At this point, anything is.
Japan's Daisuke Takahashi and Yuzuru Hanyu will be contenders, too. Takahashi won the Grand Prix final last season and Hanyu, 18, upset the field to win Japan's national championship. Known as a somewhat overzealous trainer, Hanyu has become more efficient since working with coach Brian Orser in Toronto. In 2010, a tsunami badly damaged his home and skating rink in Sendai, forcing him briefly into a shelter and a series of practice rinks to resume his training.
Though it wouldn't be fair to discount Lysacek's chances at a successful return, the Olympic champ hasn't competed since winning gold in Vancouver. He planned to return this season, but suffered a groin injury and missed out on Nationals. Given the need for the quad he didn't perform in winning the Olympics, Lysacek will be hard-pressed to get back on top. Surprise U.S. champ Max Aaron will head to worlds as an unlikely candidate to medal, but given his relative inexperience abroad, it will be critical for Aaron to earn some credibility with the judges. If he does, his Sochi prospects will rise.
Russia's Evgeni Plushenko, the reigning Olympic silver medalist, will sit out worlds this year after having back surgery. Though he has not officially retired, it will be a reach to see him in Sochi a year from now.
By winning the South Korean national title in early January in only her second competitive event in nearly two years, Kim Yu-na firmly announced her return to Olympic contention. But it remains to be seen how a lengthy and difficult layoff will affect her prospects.
At nationals, Kim set records for scores in both the short program (78.50) and free skate (150.06). Setting aside the inconsistencies of scoring standards that sometimes render those scores meaningless, Kim's performance was indeed record-worthy. It was smooth and confident from the triple Lutz-triple toe combination right through the finish. The 2009 world champ and three-time Grand Prix final winner, Kim has never finished off the podium when she and other skaters have competed under ISU rules.
Kim has had an eventful few years. She had a nasty and bizarre split with Orser, who had trained her in Toronto, away from the glare of her national spotlight. Orser announced the split in a press release, and Kim later fired off an online message saying that Orser had lied about some details and that she knew nothing of his announcement until he actually made it. Kim then moved to Los Angeles to train in Michelle Kwan's old rink and skipped the 2011-12 season entirely. Before this season, she moved back to Korea to train with her childhood coaches.
Japan's Mao Asada has been Kim's main rival for nearly a decade, dating to their days as juniors. Both are stylish 22-year-old skaters who are wildly popular in their home countries. Asada has won two world titles and has largely assumed the top spot with Kim off the ice. Last season, she won Grand Prix events in Japan and China before winning the Grand Prix final. She last beat Kim in 2010, when she landed a superb triple Axel that left her with a technical superiority. The jump has been largely absent from her program since then, but she insists it will be back for her final run at the Olympics.
Carolina Kostner of Italy became the butt of jokes in front of her home crowd at the Turin Games in 2006 when she fell on nearly every jump she tried. Yet Kostner has persevered, and last year she won her first world title, saying later that she "closed her mind to any thinking" in order to get rid of bad thoughts. With five European titles to her credit, Kostner will always be in the mix for a major competition. Still, younger contenders can outjump her, and she may need others to have Kostner-like meltdowns to win gold in Sochi.
Ashley Wagner has asserted herself as the top U.S. medal hopeful. Last month, Wagner became the first skater to win consecutive U.S. ladies titles since Kwan in 2005. That's the good news. On the other hand, if she had hoped to send a message to judges that she was ready to contend with Kim and Asada in a period when world and Olympic titles seem more wide open than usual, Wagner didn't help her cause. She flubbed three jumps in her free skate and only held on to first place because she had a much better short program than runner-up Gracie Gold.
Wagner's move to California 18 months ago to begin training under veteran coach John Nicks has done her wonders, elevating her to the top U.S. performer on the Grand Prix circuit. "Mr. Nicks has changed my outlook on what I expect of myself," she said. If she isn't foiled by trying to meet those expectations, Wagner could contend for a medal in Sochi.
Don't count out two young Russians, Elizaveta Tukhtamysheva and Adelina Sotnikova. Tukhtamysheva, 16, won the Russian title this year and took third in the European championships. Sotnikova, also 16, a three-time national champ, took silver at the Europeans.
Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy have been near the top of the leader board for the last six years, winning gold medals at the world championships in 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012. The pair won bronze at the Vancouver Olympics. Just as the quad jump has been a measuring stick for the top male singles skaters, so has the throw triple Axel been for this pair. They have crashed with it frequently, but would be tough to beat if they can make it through a clean free skate that includes that throw.
Even with Russia's long streak of Olympic titles behind it, you still can't have a major international pairs skating competition without a strong Russian presence. World silver medalists Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov won the Grand Prix title last month, while their countrymen Vera Bazarova and Yury Larionov took silver. China's Pang Qing and Tong Jian were third.
Pang and Tong are the defending Olympic silver medalists, taking second behind their countrymen Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, who have since married and retired from the sport. Pang and Tong are both 33 and have been skating together since 1993, which is several lifetimes for most skaters.
This should be a North American two-team race between Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the reigning Olympic champions from Canada, and Meryl Davis and Charlie White, Olympic silver medalists and 2011 world champs from the U.S. The teams have occupied the top two spots in their events since the last Olympics. Adding to the intrigue, they train at the same rink -- though not together at the exact same time -- in Michigan. Russian Marina Voueva coaches and choreographs programs for both of them.
Davis and White have won the last five U.S. national titles, and in 2011, the pair went undefeated, topping Virtue and Moir at the worlds in Moscow. They also won the Grand Prix title this season, becoming the first dance team to win the event four times. The pair grew up 10 minutes apart from each other in Michigan and has been skating together for 14 years.
"You know how you can tell what somebody's thinking just by the way they look at you?" White said. "Well, I know the look."
Virtue and Moir will be hard-pressed to top their Olympic performance in Vancouver. Even discounting the advantage of skating before a supportive home crowd, they skated brilliantly, as Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean had when they set the standard for ice dance by winning gold in Sarajevo in 1984. Virtue, who was born in London, Ontario, has battled injuries over the past couple of seasons that have hampered her training. At this season's Grand Prix final, won by Davis and White, they amended their short dance to The Waltz Goes On, simplifying the storyline and then later breaking out a free dance with a Carmen theme.