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Vancouver figure skating preview

jeremy-abbott-p1.jpg's writers will preview each event from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Here's Richard Deitsch's and Rebecca Sun's look ahead to the figure skating competition.

One of the most impressive streaks in Olympic history appears to be on thin ice: Since 1968, the U.S. women have medaled in every Winter Games in the Ladies competition, but America's best hopes in 2010, Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu, are long shots to the hit the medal stand. The U.S. qualified for two Ladies spots in Vancouver, failing to earn the maximum three for only the second time since 1924.

That means the best chance for domestic success on the ice will likely come from the ice dancing competition, where reigning U.S. champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White will duel with Turin silver medalists and five-time national champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto for gold. Meanwhile, the U.S. men's trio of Jeremy Abbott, Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir should be competitive but are unlikely to win the Men's competition.

Why should you care? Figure skating will arguably provide the most compelling drama at the Games. (Plus, NBC will inundate you with every competition in prime time.) There are nine nights of figure skating, including the Ladies, Men's, pairs and ice dancing competition. Also, South Korea's Kim Yu-Na, the reigning world champion, might produce one of the all-time great performances. She's must-see TV.

Kim Yu-Na, South Korea (Ladies). The 19-year-old is the reigning world champion and won three out of four Grand Prix Finals this season, including the ISU Grand Prix final in December. A six-time Korean national champion, Kim moved to Canada in 2006 for training and is coached by '84 and '88 Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser. She is a heavy favorite.

Mao Asada, Japan (Ladies). Asada became the first woman to land a triple-triple-triple combination in competition -- at the tender age of 12 -- and by '05, she was widely considered the best figure skater in the world. Now 19, Asada is finally eligible for the Olympics. She has won four straight Japanese national titles, two Four Continents championships and a world title in '08, though she finished fourth in the world in '09. Last month, she hit two triple axels in winning the Four Continents in Jeonju, South Korea, an event Kim bypassed.

Miki Ando, Japan (Ladies). Ando, the '07 world champion, suffered through a miserable two years before finishing third at the '09 world championships. She won both of her Grand Prix events this season (the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow and the NHK Trophy in Nagano) and remains the only female to perform a quadruple jump in competition (a salchow at the junior Grand Prix Final in '02). At the Turin Games, Ando finished an ugly 15th, a performance she hopes to extinguish in Vancouver.

Joannie Rochette, Canada (Ladies). Canadian women had been absent from the world championship podium for 21 years until Rochette finished second (behind Kim) last March. She also medaled at both Grand Prix events she entered in '09, including a win at Skate Canada. It's no surprise that the 24-year-old, who finished fifth in Turin, felt comfortable on home ice -- she has held the Canadian national title since '05. She'll be the crowd favorite in Vancouver.

Carolina Kostner, Italy (Ladies). Italians had high hopes for Kostner in Turin, but she came in a disappointing ninth. Kostner was the first Italian woman to win the European Championship in '07, then successfully defended the title the following year. But when she finished in 12th at the world championships 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 in January and is currently second in the world standings.

Evgeni Plushenko, Russia (Men's). The reigning Olympic champion returned to the sport this spring after a two-year retirement and destroyed the field (by 25.52 points) at the Grand Prix's Rostelecom Cup in Moscow in October. He then set a world record for total score (271.59) in reclaiming the Russian national title -- his eighth -- in December and handily won the European Championships in January. Plushenko, 27, is the one to beat.

Patrick Chan, Canada (Men's). Like most kids in his country, Chan aspired to become a hockey player. But he ultimately became Canada's best male figure skater, winning three consecutive national titles. The 19-year-old is the reigning Four Continents champion and world silver medalist. He is a huge threat to hit the medal stand in Vancouver, though he curiously parted ways with coach Don Laws last month. He's now working under his longtime choreographer, Lori Nichol, and jumps specialist Christy Krall, according to the Canwest News Service.

Stéphane Lambiel, Switzerland (Men's). If the results from last month's European Championships are any indication, the Vancouver competition could be a repeat of Turin, when Plushenko and Lambiel finished one-two. After returning this season from a short retirement, Lambiel, a two-time world champion, reasserted his dominance quickly, picking up a Swiss title (his 11th since '98) and the Nebelhorn Trophy. At 24, he's in his prime.

Brian Joubert, France (Men's). The 2007 world champion (the first Frenchman to win in 42 years) has medaled at the European Championships every season since '02, including three gold medals. But the quad master (at the '06 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. The 25-year-old returned to competition in January at the European Championships and won a bronze medal. This will be Joubert's third Olympic Games (he finished 14th in Salt Lake City, sixth in Turin).

Daisuke Takahashi, Japan (Men's). Takahashi, 23, was the first Japanese man to win a silver medal at the world championships ('07), but missed all of the '08-09 season after tearing ligaments in his right knee. Before his injury, he won the '08 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. He returned to the ice last April and this season won his fourth national title, the Finlandia Trophy and a silver medal at Skate Canada.

Michal Brezina, Czech Republic (Men's). After watching the '98 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 last February. 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.

Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo, China (Pairs). The two-time Olympic bronze pairs medalists retired in '07 (the year they got married), but decided to make one last run at gold in Vancouver. "To lift the Olympic trophy is the ultimate dream of our career; we just came back for it," Zhao, who at 37 is the oldest athlete in the Chinese Olympic delegation, told Xinhua last month. Before their retirement, Shen and Zhao won three world championships and six titles of ISU Grand Prix finals.

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Pang Qing and Tong Jian, China (Pairs). Pang and Tong just missed the podium in Turin and are determined to medal in their third trip to the Olympics. Their experience should be an advantage: Pang and Tong, both 30, started skating at age 6 and have been paired since '93. Together, the '06 world champions have won four Chinese national titles and four Four Continents championships. This season, they won both of their Grand Prix assignments.

Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov, Russia (Pairs). Their score of 213.15 points at last month's European figure skating championship was the second highest points total for pairs in history, only marginally behind the 214.25 points earned by Shen and Zhao at the Grand Prix final in December.

Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, Germany (Pairs). The pair led after the short program at the European championships, but were shocked by Kavaguti and Smirnov. Despite the setback, the Germans, who won the past three European Championships and have two world titles, will be a major factor in Vancouver.

Zhang Dan and Zhang Hao, China (Pairs). The world's second-ranked team and Turin silver medalists notched their highest score of the season last month in winning the Four Continents championships. Zhang and Zhang also finished second at the worlds in '08 and '09.

Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, Russia (Dance). The top-ranked ice dancers in the world have one very big Achilles' heel: Shabalin's knees. He has had multiple meniscus surgeries on both knees over the years, including three between May '07 and March '08. Recurring knee issues caused the couple to skip the '08 world championships (although they returned to win the title in '09) and miss the entire Grand Prix series this season. Despite some outcry from indigenous groups over their aboriginal-themed original dance, Domnina and Shabalin, who were ninth in the '06 Olympics, won their third Russian and second European titles with the program last month.

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Canada (Dance). The young skaters (she's 20, he's 22) will be making their Olympic debut on home ice. The duo were the first Canadian ice dancers to become junior world champions, accomplishing the feat in '06. Moir and Virtue missed the '08 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. This season, the world's No. 2 team solidified its status as contenders with a third straight national title, two Grand Prix wins and a silver medal at the Grand Prix Final.

Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, France (Dance). The '08 world champions were unable to defend their title last March after Delobel underwent shoulder surgery. They also missed the first half of the '09 season when Delobel had her first child on October 2. But the six-time French national title holders skipped this month's European Championships because of "purely strategic reasons, related entirely to the element of surprise regarding their innovative new free program," according to the French skating federation. Who knows how they'll skate after a 14-month competitive hiatus.

Jeremy Abbott (Men's). With back-to-back U.S. titles, the 24-year-old leads a deep men's team to Vancouver but is also its least experienced member. He finished 11th in both his trips to Worlds, and his best showing at a major international event was third at the Four Continents Championships in '07. Hoping to improve his performance on the big stage, he hired Yuka Sato (the '94 women's world champion) as his coach last May.

Evan Lysacek (Men's). Lysacek finished just shy of the podium in Turin but is a medal threat in 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 January'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." Last March the 24-year-old won the world title, the first time an American man captured the title since '96 (Todd Eldridge).

Johnny Weir (Men's). 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 national champion and has bronze medals from the '08 world championships and two Grand Prix Finals. Weir was second after the short program in Turin but fell apart in the long, finishing fifth. He contemplated quitting the sport last spring after failing to make the world team for the first time since '03.

Rachael Flatt (Ladies). In claiming her first U.S. title last month, the 17-year-old cracked the 200-point threshold, previously the exclusive domain of Kim and Asada. Flatt was a junior world champion in '08 and has been consistent 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.

Mirai Nagasu (Ladies). Nagasu was first after the short program at last month's nationals and had a rousing free skate, winning the crowd but finishing second to Flatt. As a 14-year-old in '08, she became the second-youngest national titleholder, but at the same event a year later the combination of a growth spurt (from 4-foot-11 to 5-4), a foot injury and adolescent angst pushed her down to fifth place. In '09, she switched to Hall of Fame coach Frank Carroll, who trained Michelle Kwan and now men's world champion Lysacek, and finished fifth at the Cup of China and fourth at Skate Canada this season.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White (Dance). With their charismatic performance ability and dazzling technique, Davis and White are second only to Russia's Domnina and Shabalin in the world standings and were just .04 short of reaching the world championship podium. 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 last month's national championships, where Davis and White prevailed over their training partners for the first time. The duo will have a huge rooting section in Ann Arbor, as both are students at the University of Michigan.

Tanith Belben and Ben Agosto (Dance). The '06 Olympic silver medalists have suffered injuries that have put a hiccup in their progress toward Vancouver. The duo withdrew from the Grand Prix Final in December when Belbin had to undergo emergency surgery on a wisdom tooth. The pair finished behind Davis and White at the U.S. championships in Spokane but are the reigning world silver medalists and five-time U.S. champions.

Both Plushenko and Lambiel made comebacks after retirements, and in his first major championship since the Turin Games, Plushenko finished 16.85 points ahead of Lambiel to take the European Championships. That was also the result in Turin; now Lambiel gets to attempt to exact some revenge in Vancouver.

Russians or Soviets have won every gold in the pairs competition since '64. That streak is in serious jeopardy this year thanks to a strong Chinese trio and the powerful German team of Savchenko and Szolkowy.

Pairs: Feb. 15Men's: Feb. 18Ice Dance: Feb. 22Ladies: Feb. 25