Winter Olympics Sochi 2014

Winter Olympics Sochi 2014

Follow All The Winter Olympics Action Feb. 6-24 on NBC

What You Need to Know About Team USA's Top Olympic Women's Figure Skating Rivals

Four women will pose the toughest challenges to America's trio of competitors.

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    America's toughest figure skating rivals have difficult jumps and Olympic medals on their resumes.

    The trio competing for the U.S. in women's figure skating -- the crown jewel of the Olympic Games -- have a legitimate shot at making it to the medal podium. But to get there, American skaters Ashley Wagner, Gracie Gold and Polina Edmunds first must outdo an accomplished and hungry roster of competitors.

    Thirty women compete in the individual event Wednesday and Thursday, including a 15-year-old Russian figure skating phenom, an Italian late bloomer and the reigning Olympic gold and silver medalists.

    Here's your guide to some of the best of their competition: 

    RUSSIA'S JULIA LIPNITSKAIA
    Lipnitskaia is the youngest skater in the competition but also one of the favorites. She dominated the women's individual portion of last week's team event, helping Russia to its first gold medal of the Sochi Games (and earning an approving pat on the head from President Vladimir Putin). She was the top scorer in both parts of the event, beating Wagner in the short program and Gold in the free skate.

    Since those performances, she has ducked out of the spotlight, heading back to her home gym in Moscow to finish polishing her routines. Meanwhile, her name has been on everyone's lips, with skating analysts Scott Hamilton, Tara Lipinski and teammate Evgeny Plushenko calling her everything from "special" to "genius."

    What she's got: The home crowd advantage.

    Gold medal motivation: If Lipnitskaia clinches the gold, she will be the first Russian to do so in the history of the women's individual Olympic skating event. (No pressure.)

    SOUTH KOREA'S YUNA KIM
    Kim stunned pretty much everyone who watched her 2010 Olympic performance, including the judges. Her programs were flawless and earned her the highest score ever given out in a women's Olympic figure skating contest. After clinching the gold, she moved back home to South Korea from her training base in Canada and scaled back her competition schedule for two full years. When she returned to the ice full time, however, it was apparent that the period of rest hadn't slowed her down. She took the gold at the 2013 world championships in a performance sure to send shivers down the spines of other Sochi medal hopefuls. 

    What she's got: Lots of experience handling Olympic pressure and massive fame back home.

    Gold medal motivation: Kim has announced that she is retiring after the Sochi Games. If she defends her title, she'll become just the third woman in Olympic history to notch two individual figure skating golds. 

    JAPAN'S MAO ASADA
    Asada has been competing against Kim for years, trading victories with her at a long list of competitions, including the 2010 Games. There, she took the silver, a good distance behind Kim, but has vowed to set things right at Sochi. “In Vancouver, I had the gold medal as my goal,” Asada said in an interview last year, according to Olympic.org. “I'd worked for it since I was a child, and afterwards I really regretted my mistakes. In Sochi, I'd like to erase those memories by doing everything perfectly. That’s what I've been working for these last three years.” 

    What she's got: Asada can do what no other female figure skater has ever managed to do: land a triple axel in competition. This is among the hardest jumps in the sport, requiring enough power, height and fearlessness for a skater to complete three and a half rotations in the air. She failed to land the jump in the Sochi team event but has had time to regroup since then.

    Gold medal motivation: Like Kim, Asada has announced that she will retire from competitive skating after the Sochi Games. 

    ITALY'S CAROLINA KOSTNER
    Kostner has had the longest career of any of the top contenders and has developed slowly over time. It took her 10 tries before she won her first world championship title, but she eventually did in 2012, when she was already in her mid 20s. Now, at 27, she's competing in her third Olympic Games, and anyalysts say this could finally be her year to reach the medal podium. She's already off to a good start, having finished third in the women's individual portion of the Sochi team event.

    What she's got: Zen. Kostner is older, has been through many competitions -- including two Olympics -- and is under less pressure than some of her competitors to win the gold. While the other top contenders talk in interviews about winning that title, Kostner talks more about enjoying the experience.

    Gold medal motivation: Just as it is for Kim and Asada, this is also Kostner's last chance for the gold -- or medal of any color.