U.S. among favorites to win team figure-skating
Sochi, Russia -- The Sochi Olympics will burst into action Thursday, a day ahead of Friday’s official opening ceremony, with ever-popular figure skating getting a leap on the rest of the competition as it debuts its new team event.
As the world turns its sporting focus to Russia for the 22nd Winter Games, an Arizona athlete will watch with mixed emotions.
Max Aaron longed to qualify for the Sochi Olympics, not just for the obvious reason that it’s the pinnacle of his sport but also because figure skating is including a team competition for the first time.
Aaron helped the United States to win a team gold and $200,000 prize money last year at the World Team Trophy in Tokyo.
“I enjoyed it so much and I was really looking forward to participating,” said Aaron of Scottsdale, who just missed out on Sochi after finishing third at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. “It’s going to be just like a lot of the other Olympic sports that are team-based. We’re going to be able to grow as a team and get the support from the United States.”
The U.S. is among the favorites to win gold in the event, which adds an extra element of drama to the most popular sport at the Winter Games.
Just over half of Americans surveyed plan to watch or follow the Winter Olympics, according to an Associated Press-GfK Poll. And 35 percent of those planning to watch or follow cited figure skating as their favorite sport.
The team competition begins Thursday with the men’s and pairs’ short programs, continues Saturday and ends Sunday.
Ten countries will enter men’s, women’s, pairs and dance skaters to perform in short programs, with the field cut to five for long programs.
There can be two substitutes after the short program. So the U.S. could use one of its three women’s qualifiers — Gracie Gold, Polina Edmunds or Ashley Wagner — in the short and another in the long. Or opt for Meryl Davis and Charlie White, gold-medal favorites in dance, to skate just once in team.
The lineup strategy could determine which of the leading contenders — U.S., Canada, Japan or Russia — falls short of enough points for a medal.
The Olympics is using a different format than in Japan, where all skaters did both programs. Aaron was fourth among the men and Jeremy Abbott sixth. Abbott and Jason Brown qualified for Sochi.
“It works out to the athlete’s benefit because you get to go in early and be on the ice a lot longer and more frequently because individual practice ice starts later and you’re not in the main arena,” Aaron said. “You get to test out your program and see what it feels like to be on competition ice before you do your individual. It’s a huge benefit.”
The team event will likely foreshadow what is to come individually although results still could widely vary.
Pairs competition is Feb. 11-12 followed by men (Feb. 13-14), dance (Feb. 16-17) and women (Feb. 19-20).
White and Davis are reigning world champions and silver medalists from the 2010 Olympics. They have skated together since 1997, winning six straight U.S. titles, and are favored to topple training partners Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, gold medalists at the Vancouver Olympics.
“If they stand on their feet, they will win the gold,” said Douglas Razzano of Chandler, sixth among men at the U.S. Championships. “They’ve pushed the artistic and technical limits.”
Doug Ladret, Razzano’s coach at the Ice Den in Scottsdale, sees dance as more of a coin-flip pick.
South Korea’s Yuna Kim won by a huge margin (23 points) at the Vancouver Olympics and will try to join Katarina Witt (1984, ’88) and Sonja Henie (1928, ’32, ’36) as women’s consecutive gold medalists.
Japan’s Mao Asada was second in 2010 and still is regarded as Kim’s main challenger.
U.S. Figure Skating chose to send Wagner, fourth at nationals, and 15-year-old Edmunds along with national champion Gold, leaving out third-place finisher Mirai Nagasu, the highest American finisher (fourth) in Vancouver.
Aaron believes Wagner, U.S. champion in 2012 and ’13, “is going to peak at the right moment.” “Polina has quite the jumps for being very young. Gold is proving to be quite the lady in our sport with her athleticism and on the component side.”
The last American woman to medal at the Olympics was Sasha Cohen, taking silver in 2006.
The men’s favorites are Patrick Chan, trying to become Canada’s first gold medalist, Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi and Yuzuru Hanyu and Spain’s Javier Fernandez.
Russia’s Evgeni Plushenko will try for a second gold and third medal in his home country, hosting its first Winter Olympics, but at 31 with knee and back injuries, he could be more of a long shot than Abbott.
“He’s the most complete skater in the U.S.,” Aaron said. “He can take the gold, he’s such a strong athlete all-around. Everything he does is effortless.”
Two-time U.S. pairs champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir can contribute in team but are not individual medal contenders. That field is led by Russia’s Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov.
Aaron, 2013 U.S. champion who turns 22 on Feb. 25, will join Abbott on the American team at the World Championships, March 24-30, in Saitama, Japan.
The Olympics “will be difficult to watch,” said Aaron, who trains in Colorado Springs. “It’s all about how I’m going to react to it. Will this break me down or build me up? I’m going to make it a learning experience, watch and take it into the arena to get better so I’m not in the position of watching the Olympic Games.”
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