After years of coming up just short, Ashley Wagner heads to this week's world figure skating championships in Nice, France, as a legitimate contender for a medal, something the Americans haven't seen in half a decade.
Maybe even the gold.
"The results from Four Continents really speak for themselves," Wagner said, referring to the competition last month where she beat two-time world champion Mao Asada for the title, two weeks after winning her first U.S. crown. "It's anyone's game at this point, so I just need to put out the programs so that I'll be competitive."
The world championships begin Wednesday with the pairs short program and the short dance. The women's event begins Thursday and the men start Friday.
With the Sochi Olympics still two years away, these world championships are critical for the Americans. Down to two entries for both the men and the women, they would like to pick up a third to increase their odds of having the maximum Olympic spots once considered a birthright of U.S. skaters.
Olympic places are awarded based on the results of the 2013 world championships, with the top two U.S. skaters needing a combined finish of 13 (fifth and eighth, for example) to secure three spots in their event. By earning back those third spots in Nice, the Americans would give themselves some insurance, allowing them to "drop" their lowest score next year.
Go to the 2013 worlds with only two skaters, however, and there's no margin for error.
"Getting that third spot is crucial, and the sooner we do it, the better," said Wagner, who missed out on the Vancouver Games because she finished third at the U.S. championships. "It's great we've taken our time so far, but it's really about time to get it back."
If there's ever a year to do it, this is it.
This is the weakest women's field in a non-Olympic year since, well, ages. Neither Miki Ando nor Olympic champion Yu-na Kim, last year's gold and silver medalists, will be at worlds. Ditto for Russia's top women, Adelina Sotnikova, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva or Julia Lipnitskaia, all of whom are too young.
Defending bronze medalist Carolina Kostner won both the Grand Prix final and European championships, but consistency has never been the Italian's strong suit. Asada made the Grand Prix final for the first time since 2008 after winning at Rostelecom Cup, but did not compete after the sudden death of her mother.
Alissa Czisny, who was fifth last year, is the other American.
"This year is definitely wide open," Wagner said. "It's anyone's game at this point, so I just need to put out the programs so that I'll be competitive."
Wagner, who turns 21 in May, has had a breakout season since moving cross-country last summer to train with John Nicks, best known as Sasha Cohen's coach. She has the technical skills, with a triple-triple combination in the short program and a double axel-triple toe loop combo in the long, and Nicks made her perfect her programs one segment at a time so she'd be sure she had the stamina to get through them.
She's also developed a commanding presence on the ice, her "Black Swan" program is so mesmerizing, the feathers nearly pop out of her back.
"We've really been focused on getting the quality of everything up a little bit," Wagner said. "With the girls I'm going up against, I need to hit every single point I possibly can."
So will the men, with the way defending champion Patrick Chan has been steamrolling the competition.
The Canadian hasn't lost a competition in more than a year, and only once during that span has someone managed to get within double digits of him. He has quadruple jumps in both programs, and few skaters can match his ease and whimsy on the ice.
"I don't really think about the points very much," Chan said. "I just wanted to see the difference of my skating last year to this year, that's the main focus. So at the end of worlds, I can watch the video of this year and see a big difference, a big improvement in the movement of the program compared to last year."
Make no mistake, however, he wants another title.
No man has repeated as world champion since Stephane Lambiel in 2006, and Chan said seeing the same skater atop the podium might help revive interest in a sport that's in serious need of star power.
"That's my biggest motivation," he said. "That's what we've been really looking for, someone familiar, someone (fans) can remember their name and remember how they skated, and really see the improvement they make every year."
Though no one has beaten Chan recently, that doesn't mean he's unbeatable, American Jeremy Abbott said. The three-time U.S. champion is skating with newfound confidence this season, and not only does he think he and Adam Rippon can get that third men's spot back for the Americans, he believes he can make a run at Chan.
Like Chan, Abbott is one of the few who's managed to maintain the balance between the performance quality that makes figure skating so entertaining and the tough physical tricks the system now demands. He was masterful at the U.S. championships, landing an effortless quad in his free skate and performing with the joy and quiet elegance that comes when a skater lets the music wash over him and tell his body what to do.
"If I put down two of my best programs and Patrick puts down two of his best programs, I think that we're in the same level," Abbott said. "I feel really good physically, I feel good mentally, I still feel I have plenty of fight and competition left in me, and I'm really actually excited to go to these world championships."
Daisuke Takahashi, the Olympic bronze medalist and 2010 world champion, should also be in the mix, along with Javier Fernandez of Spain, the bronze medalist at the Grand Prix final, and European runner-up Artur Gachinski. Though Evgeni Plushenko has returned to competition in triumphant fashion, winning his seventh European title in January, he will not be in Nice after having knee surgery.
In ice dance, the rivalry between defending champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White and Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir will take center stage once again. The Americans beat Virtue and Moir, who are also their training partners and good friends, at the Grand Prix final, only to see the Canadians upstage them at Four Continents.
In pairs, Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy will be favored to win their second straight title and fourth overall. Their biggest challenge will likely come from Russia's Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, who won the European title after Savchenko and Szolkowy were forced to withdraw because of her thigh injury.