After Dance, Who Knows for U.S. Olympic Team?
The 2014 US Figure Skating Championships kick off this week in Boston
By BARRY WILNER
Sunday, Jan 5, 2014 • Updated 9:00 AM PDT
Meryl Davis and Charlie White, of the United States, compete in the ice dance free dance at the Skate America figure skating competition in Detroit, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013.
World champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White should easily ice dance their way into the Sochi Olympics.
Two-time U.S. women's champion Ashley Wagner is a strong favorite to make the American team.
Beyond that, the national championships in Boston, which begin this week and basically serve as the Olympic trials, are wide open.
With defending Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek's comeback attempt never getting off the ice because of injuries, the men's field has no strong favorite. As for pairs, well, must we go there, considering how weak the United States has been in the discipline for decades?
Ah, but the dance. Davis and White — Marlie if you will — took silver at the Vancouver Games behind rivals and training partners Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada. They've won the last five Grand Prix titles and were, by far, the class of the field in that event in December.
Nobody can be a shoo-in for such a slippery sport. Yet, if there is a sure thing in Boston, it's that Marlie will win their sixth straight championship.
"Right now, we're really just focused on the competition and it kind of feels much the same as it has for the last three, four years," White said. "Our ability to live in the moment and focus on what we can do to improve our scores and skating in general has allowed us to grow. We are definitely not getting away from that now."
Favored for the other two Sochi spots — the U.S. gets the maximum three in the ice dance and women's fields, just two in men's and pairs — are Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and the brother-sister combo of Maia and Alex Shibutani.
Wagner also is a solid choice to make it to Russia. She remembers how close she came to being on the Vancouver team, finishing third in 2010 when only two women could go to the games.
"In 2010, I was 17 or 18 and thought, 'Yeah, the Olympics, that might happen.' Now, I'm set on making it reality. I've taken all the thoughtful steps to get there," the 22-year-old Wagner said. "My approach for nationals is that, while no doubt this is a huge event, if you make it a huge event in your mind, it becomes unbearable.
"So just make it another day at the rink and it's cool. And go for it."
Also going for it in a relatively deep women's field will be 2013 U.S. runner-up Gracie Gold, Agnes Zawadzki, 2010 Olympian Mirai Nagasu and Christina Gao.
Wagner and Gold placed high enough at last year's world championships to ensure three spots in Sochi. Considering the golden history for U.S. women at the Olympics — do the names Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes ring a bell? — it was a significant achievement.
Wagner believes the United States will send a very strong women's contingent to Sochi.
"Oh, yeah," she said with a smile. "I am very proud of that. I was so proud of Gracie at her first worlds, and she could have crumbled under the pressure. Instead, she kept it together, was great, and we got that third spot back."
No such luck in the men's event.
While Lysacek remained on the fringes of returning, only Jeremy Abbott of the old guard has been a factor. A three-time national champion who has struggled in most international competitions, Abbott was ninth in Vancouver.
Pushing him for the Olympic roster will be defending champion Max Aaron, Ross Miner, Jason Brown, Joshua Farris, Adam Rippon — nearly everyone except Lysacek.
"In the Grand Prix, I did well, and I think people are waiting to see me and what I can do at nationals," said Rippon, a two-time world junior champ who was just fifth at last year's nationals, but was second at Skate America and fourth at NHK Trophy this season. "I am excited to surprise them. They should expect something really surprising — in a good way.
"I feel I have made a big statement already this year, showed them I am not dead yet," Rippon added with a laugh. "They wanted to write me off. No way."
As for an Olympic medal for the Americans in pairs, well, no way. The last time one of those was collected was bronze in 1988 by Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard.
One issue in the event is that U.S. pairs tend to not remain together as long as non-Americans. So the Russians or Germans or Chinese have left them in their snow showers, far behind.
The best bets to win at nationals are defending champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, New Englanders through and through. They can't wait to hit the ice at TD Garden.
"We live 10 minutes from the Garden," Castelli said. "We're absolutely excited it is in Boston. It's awesome, with the cheering crowds for us. It won't feel like nationals."
Considering what's on the line, that might be a wise approach.
Copyright Associated Press