Figure Skaters to Watch
Last March, the 24-year-old brought the world title back to the U.S. for the first time in 13 years. Can he achieve a similar feat with an Olympic gold medal, which hasn't had an American champ since Brian Boitano in 1988? Lysacek finished just shy of the podium in Turin but is now a frontrunner entering Vancouver, with wins at Skate America and the Grand Prix Final this season. The two-time national champion stumbled during an attempted quadruple toe loop at last month's U.S. championship, but assured reporters it was just a test run: "What happened here is absolutely not a reflection of what I'm going to be like at the Olympics," he said. "I'm saving my Olympic skate for that night."
If the reigning Olympic champion's un-retirement announcement last spring didn't strike fear into the hearts of elite male skaters, his actual comeback performances should have: The 27-year-old spanked the field (by 25.52 points) at the Grand Prix's Rostelecom Cup in Moscow in October; set a world best record for total score (271.59) in reclaiming the Russian national title -- his eighth -- in December; and then handily won the European Championships in January.
Like most kids in his country, Chan aspired to become a hockey player, but he became Canada's best male figure skater instead, with three straight national titles. The 2009 Four Continents champion and reigning world silver medalist, 19, is ranked in the world's top ten and represents the home team's best hope in what will be a competitive men's contest.
The 2007 world champion (the first Frenchman to win in 42 years) has medaled at the European Championships every season since 2002, including three gold medals, and won six consecutive national titles. The quad master (at the 2006 Cup of Russia, he became the first European to land three quadruple jumps in one program) cut his right foot during a practice in November and underwent surgery to repair ligaments, withdrawing from the Grand Prix Final and the French national championship. He returned to competition in January at the European Championships, continuing his streak at the event with a bronze medal. The Olympic veteran (14th in Salt Lake City, sixth in Turin) hopes to be back in prime condition for his third try: "I'm going to do the maximum to be at my best three weeks from now in Vancouver," he said. "I know I can do much better."
Figure skating's most outspoken and colorful character may have his own TV show (the Sundance Channel's Be Good Johnny Weir), but don't underestimate his seriousness as a competitive athlete: The 25-year-old is a three-time U.S. national champion and has bronze medals from the 2008 world championships and two Grand Prix Finals. Even so, Weir, who was second after the short program in Turin but fell apart in the long to finish fifth, contemplated quitting the sport last spring after failing to make the world team for the first time since 2003. He changed his mind after a pep talk from his mother. "I haven't worked this hard for this long to just say, `Okay, I'm done,'" he told ESPN last month. "I have to go out with a bang. Either good or bad, I have to go out knowing I did everything I could."
With back-to-back national titles, the 24-year-old leads a deep American men's team to Vancouver but is also its least experienced member: He finished in 11th place in both his trips to worlds, and his best showing at a major international event was third at the Four Continents Championships in 2007. Hoping to improve his performance on the big stage, he hired 1994 women's world champion Yuka Sato as his coach last May.
If the results of last month's European Championships are any indication, the men's contest at the Olympics could be déjà vu from the Turin Games, when Evgeni Plushenko and Lambiel finished one-two, respectively. Both skaters retired before announcing comebacks last year. Like his Russian rival, Lambiel, a two-time world champion, reasserted his dominance quickly, picking up a Swiss title (his 11th since 1998) and the Nebelhorn Trophy this season.
By winning Japan's national championship in 2005, Oda was set for Turin until judges discovered a scoring error that took away his gold medal, as well as the Olympic berth. Two years later, he was suspended by the Japanese skating federation for operating a moped under the influence and sat out the 2007-08 season. Oda returned the following winter and won the national title -- this time for real. Now 22, the charismatic performer has won two Grand Prix events this season and came in second at the Grand Prix Final in December.
The first Japanese man to win a silver medal at the world championships (in 2007) missed all of the 2008-09 season after tearing ligaments in his right knee. Before his injury, he won the 2008 Four Continents Championship (where he notched an ISU-best 264.41 points) and had also medaled at the Grand Prix Final three years in a row. The 23-year-old, who finished eighth at the 2006 Olympics, returned to the ice last April and this season won his fourth national title, the Finlandia Trophy and a silver medal at Skate Canada.
Other than capturing gold at the 2008 European Championships, the six-time Czech national champion has struggled to distinguish himself in international competition: He placed 18th at the Olympics in 2006, his best finish in eight trips to the world championships has been fourth, and he has yet to win a Grand Prix event. That said, the 23-year-old is currently at the top of the men's world standings, a testament to his workmanlike efforts on the ice.
After watching the 1998 Olympics as a child, Brezina dreamed of becoming a hockey player, but his father told him he first had to learn how to skate properly. He took figure skating lessons and stayed with the sport, eventually earning a silver medal at the junior world championships in February 2009. The 19-year-old, currently third in the world, has since won his first senior-level Grand Prix medal (bronze in Nagano) and is the reigning Czech national champion.
The former junior world champion has five Grand Prix medals, including a gold at Skate America in 2008 and silvers at the Final last season and the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow this winter. He is the only Japanese skater in the top ten world standings. His father, Tsuguhiko, a member of his coaching team, competed in the 1968 Games.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White
With their charismatic performance ability and dazzling technique, Davis and White are second in the world standings and were just .04 of a point short of reaching the world championship podium last March. Last year they also won their first U.S. title and Four Continents championship, as well as the Grand Prix Final this season -- a first for any American ice dancing team -- but those feats were achieved in the absence of Belbin and Agosto, who were battling various injuries. The two teams finally competed head-to-head at this month's national championships, where Davis and White prevailed over their training partners for the first time and showed the world that Team USA is now a double threat.
Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto
The 2006 Olympic silver medalists suffered a pair of injuries that put a hiccup in their progress toward Vancouver. The reigning world silver medalists and five-time U.S. champions missed nationals last season after Agosto injured his back, and then, despite winning two Grand Prix events this season (Cup of China and Skate America), withdrew from the Grand Prix Final in December when Belbin had to undergo emergency surgery on a wisdom tooth. The three-time Four Continents champs returned to competition this month but settled for silver at the U.S. championships in Spokane.
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir
The young skaters (she's 20, he's 22) will be making their Olympic debut on home ice, a nice advantage for the couple who became the first Canadian ice dancers to become junior world champions, in 2006. The pair missed the 2008 Grand Prix series when Virtue's shin surgery sidelined her for three months, but returned to pick up a silver medal in the Four Continents championship and a bronze at worlds (they received gold and silver, respectively, the year before). This season, the third-ranked team in the world solidified their status as contenders with a third straight national title, two Grand Prix wins and a silver medal at the Grand Prix Final.
Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin
The top-ranked ice dancers in the world have one very big Achilles' heel -- or knee, rather. Shabalin has had multiple meniscus surgeries on both knees over the years, including three between May 2007 and March '08. Recurring knee issues forced the couple to skip the 2008 world championships (although they returned to win the title the following year), to withdraw from last year's European Championships and to miss the entire Grand Prix series this season. The duo, who have faced outcry from indigenous groups over their aboriginal-themed dance this season, claimed their third Russian and second European titles with the program last month.
Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder
The 2008 world champions were unable to defend their title last March after Delobel underwent shoulder surgery two months earlier, and they missed the first half of this season when she had her first child on October 2, but the six-time French national titleholders skipped last month's European Championships with an entirely different explanation: "purely strategic reasons, related entirely to the element of surprise regarding their innovative new free program," read a statement by the French skating federation. Choosing Olympic ice to debut a comeback after a 14-month competitive hiatus seems like a risky move, but it sounds like it will be memorable.
Kim, 19, has a pretty good case for her No. 1 ranking: She is the reigning world and Four Continents champ, and she's won three out of four Grand Prix Finals and also all but one of her eight career GP events (she "only" managed a bronze her first time, at Skate Canada in 2006).
Four years ago, Asada was widely considered the best female figure skater in the world but too young to compete in the Olympics. Now 19, the former prodigy--she was the first woman to land a triple-triple-triple combination in competition, at the age of 12--has been biding her time well: In the past four years, she has collected four straight Japanese national titles, two Four Continents Championships (including one last weekend) and a world title and has never finished below second place at the Grand Prix Final.
Canadian women had been absent from the world championship podium for 21 years until Rochette's silver medal last March. If she medals in Vancouver, the 24-year-old will end a similar drought--Canada's last Olympic medalist in the women's event was Elizabeth Manley in the 1988 Calgary Games. Rochette's fellow citizens hope that home-ice advantage will once again play a part: The reigning national champion since 2005 medaled at both of her Grand Prix events this season, including winning gold at Skate Canada.
The skater, 22, remains the only female to perform a quadruple jump in competition (a Salchow at the junior Grand Prix Final in 2002). Despite missing this year's world championships because of an uncharacteristic fourth-place finish at nationals in Japan, the 2007 world champion, who came in 15th in Turin, is poised to be a contender in Vancouver. She won both of her Grand Prix events this season (the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow and the NHK Trophy in Nagano) to earn a trip to the GP Final in Tokyo, where she took silver.
Italians had high hopes for their compatriot in Turin, but the skater came in ninth. However, her countrymen still have reasons to be proud: the four-time national champ became the first Italian woman to win the European Championship in 2007, then successfully defended the title the following year. But after the 2008 world silver medalist finished in 12th place at worlds last March, she decided to move to L.A. to train with Hall of Fame coach Frank Carroll. The migration seems to have paid off: Kostner earned her third European title last month and is currently second in the world standings.
In claiming her first U.S. title last month, the 17-year-old from Del Mar, Calif., cracked the 200-point threshold, previously the exclusive domain of Kim Yu-Na and Mao Asada. Flatt was a junior world champion in 2008 and has been consistent but not a standout at the senior international level: She has two career Grand Prix silver medals, and in her debuts at worlds and Four Continents last season she finished fifth and seventh, respectively.
At the national championships last month, the teenager from Arcadia, Calif., was first after the short program and finished in second place to earn the second of two Olympic berths for the U.S. women's team. As a 14-year-old in 2008, Nagasu became the second-youngest national titleholder but at the same event a year later the combination of a growth spurt (from 4'11" to 5'4"), a foot injury and adolescent angst pushed her down to fifth place. Having switched to Hall of Fame coach Frank Carroll, who trained Michelle Kwan and now men's world champion Evan Lysacek, the former junior world silver medalist has retained her spirited charisma but added some poise, coming in fifth at the Cup of China and fourth at Skate Canada this season.
Thanks to Miki Ando and Mao Asada's respective third and fourth place performances at the world championships, the Japanese women's team gained a third Olympic spot, which went to Suzuki. The 24-year-old is the national silver medalist, but she is largely unproven in major international competition. She has never been to worlds and finished in eighth place in both of her trips to the Four Continents Championships (in 2002 and '09). Still, she's recently bolstered her credentials, earning a silver medal at Four Continents last weekend, winning the Cup of China this season (her first career Grand Prix win) and coming in third at the Grand Prix Final in December.
Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo
Shen and Zhao are two more former figure skating champions who have returned from retirement to deflate the hopes of other contenders. The two-time Olympic bronze medalists retired and married in 2007 after their third world and fourth Four Continents titles. Now 31 and 36, the pairs skaters have mounted their comeback in convincing fashion, not only sweeping both of their Grand Prix events this season but also setting a new ISU record total score at the Final in December.
Pang Qing and Tong Jian
The veteran pairs skaters just missed the podium in Turin and are determined to medal in their third trip to the Olympics. Their extensive experience should be an advantage: Pang and Tong, both 30, started skating at age six and have been paired since 1993. Together, the 2006 world champs have won four Chinese national titles and four Four Continents championships. This season, they won both of their Grand Prix assignments and placed second at the final.
Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy
The pair has ruled German pairs skating ever since the 2004 nationals, which they won only a few months into their partnership. The three-time European champions have also been on top of the world since the retirement of Shen and Zhao, winning back-to-back world titles in their absence. With the Chinese pair's return, however, they'll face a formidable challenge in Vancouver-- when they met at the Grand Prix Final in December, Savchenko and Szolkowy came in third behind winners Shen and Zhao.
Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao
To television audiences, Zhang and Zhang are perhaps best remembered for their free skate at the Turin Olympics, when a botched quadruple throw Salchow sent Zhang Dan into the sideboards, tearing ligaments in her left knee. The pair, who are not related, held on not only to finish the performance but to win the silver medal as well. The daring and athletic duo, who were the first to perform a quadruple twist at the junior world championships in 2000, have three world silvers and one bronze at the senior level. They have also medaled at each of their seven trips to the Four Continents Championships, winning twice (including in Jeonju City, South Korea last weekend).
Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett
The green pair (in both age and experience--she's 16, and they've only been skating together since May 2008) pulled off an astonishing upset at last month's U.S. championships, recording their first career win and, more importantly, earning a trip to the Olympics. The duo has demonstrated an impressive rate of growth: In their first season of competition, they won the silver medal at nationals and made the world championship team, but they will face a steep learning curve in Vancouver.
Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig
In beating out favored pairs Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker as well as Rena Inoue and John Baldwin, the surprise U.S. silver medalists -- their first medal in seven trips to nationals -- will be making only their second career major international appearance this month. They finished fifth at the Four Continents Championships in 2005.