Team event should add excitement - Omaha.com
Published Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 10:34 pm / Updated at 10:42 pm
FIGURE SKATING
Team event should add excitement

If you're like many winter sports fans, you already have a bad case of Olympics Fever and don't want to wait until Friday's opening ceremonies for the action to begin.

The good news: You won't have to.

That's because a new event — team competition in figure skating — actually will begin on Thursday, one day before the torch is even lit in Sochi, Russia.

More good news: The U.S. team has a very good shot at a medal, and very possibly a gold one.

That might come as a bit of a surprise, seeing as how analysts aren't giving the Americans much chance of making the podium in most of their individual events.

But because the format of the team event is designed to reward consistency in all disciplines — men's and women's singles, pairs and ice dance — the U.S. stands a far better chance than a team like Japan, which has powerhouse skaters in singles but is weak in pairs and ice dance.

Here's how it will work: The 10 countries who qualified (based on international results in 2012-13) each get one entrant per discipline in the “short program” phase, with the pairs and men competing on Thursday and the dance and women on Saturday.

After all results are combined, the top five teams will move on to the “long program” phase, which will take place in a flurry over the weekend.

And how's this for drama? The medal results might very well come down to Sunday's final showdown, in ice dance. That likely will be a battle between the teams that have dominated the scene since the last Winter Olympics: America's Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who won silver in 2010 and are the current world champions; and Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the gold medalists in 2010 but currently ranked second.

What does all of this team action mean for casual viewers of skating, who generally tune in only during an Olympics, or new viewers of skating, who became interested after last year's U.S. Championships in Omaha?

It's worth watching because it will feature a small group of top skaters from a select group of countries. Thus, it will serve as a “CliffsNotes”-style primer on how the scene has changed in the four years since Vancouver.

Yes, a few top names will be missing — most notably the 2010 women's champion, Yuna Kim of South Korea, whose country did not qualify for the team competition.

But a couple of hours spent watching the team event will give a great preview of the individual events, which begin Feb. 11 with the pairs short programs and conclude Feb. 20 with the women's finals.

The following is a quick look at how we think it will play out.

* * *

TEAM EVENT

Need to know: Strategy and secrecy are everything right now, because countries are still deciding whether they want to use their top skaters here or keep them fresh for the four individual competitions. Since teams don't have to announce their short-program lineups until Wednesday, it's like a World Series baseball team trying to guess who the opposing pitchers might be. Also, as with baseball, there are strict rules about substitutions. That might become an issue with Russia, which has qualified only one skater in men's singles and isn't supposed to be able to make any changes. Expect a lot of talk about the status of 31-year-old Evgeni Plushenko, now in his fourth Olympics, who was put on the team despite a perennially bad back and his usual lack of stamina for the long program. The buzz is that the Russians want Plushenko to skate the short program of the team event before that home-country crowd, then attempt an “injury substitution” either for the long program or for the main men's single event. Will they get away with it? Stay tuned.

The outlook: Though most analysts are putting Japan in the mix, the prediction here is that they won't even make the top-five finals, because their strong singles skaters won't be able to overcome their weakness in pairs and dance. That makes this a battle among the countries with across-the-board strength — the U.S., Canada, Russia, France and Italy.

Gold: Canada; Look for big points from Patrick Chan (men's singles) and solid results from everyone else.

Silver: United States; Davis and White are dominant in dance, but pairs is a weakness. If the singles skaters perform up to their potential, this one could be gold.

Bronze: Russia, but only if Evgeni Plushenko can make it through both programs. If not, look for this medal to go to Italy (if Carolina Kostner skates) or France (if she doesn't).

* * *

ICE DANCE

Need to know: This is one skating event in which the rigid Code of Points scoring system (adopted in 2004 in place of the more subjective 6.0 system) has really served to emphasize “sport” over “art.” Gone, thankfully, will be most of the theatrical excesses of the past, including bizarre costumes like the aboriginal outfits the Russians wore in Vancouver.

The outlook: Expect another close duel between the top two medalists from 2010: Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada and Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the U.S.

The difference this time is that the order will be switched. Since winning the 2013 world championships, Davis/White have been breezing to victory while Virtue/Moir have struggled a bit, particularly on those tricky quick turns known as “twizzles.” Yes, Davis/White could make a rare error while flying through their “My Fair Lady” short program or “Scheherazade” long program, but we'd never bet on it.

Gold: Davis and White, in what could be the United States' only medal in the four individual skating events.

Silver: Canada's Virtue and Moir.

Bronze: Nathalie Péchalat and Fabian Bourzat of France.

Other Americans: Look for the teams of Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Maia and Alex Shibutani (known by skating fans as the “Shib Sibs”) to finish within the top 10.

Omaha connection: The three U.S. Olympic teams placed 1-2-3 at the 2013 national championships, with Davis and White winning their fifth straight title (they now have a record-breaking six).

* * *

WOMEN'S SINGLES

Need to know: Forget about all that controversy over whether the team should include Ashley Wagner, who finished fourth at last month's national championships. Why? Because the team-selection committee merely followed its rules, which give substantial weight not just to the nationals but also to results in such major international competitions as last fall's Grand Prix series (Wagner was the only U.S. woman to win two medals and make the finals).

The outlook: Since last March's world championships, which saw 2010 Olympic champion Yu-Na Kim win by a huge margin, the 23-year-old has been the overwhelming favorite for another gold medal. But then a foot injury forced her out of the Grand Prix events, which in her absence saw the rise of Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia, a 15-year-old jumping phenom who just barely made the age requirement. Yes, many folks also are touting another 23-year-old — Japan's Mao Asada (second to Queen Yu-Na at last year's Worlds) — but she's been struggling bigtime with her signature triple axel jump. There is so much triple-triple jumping talent in this field, the medals could go to a completely different group, including Italy's Carolina Kostner, Russia's Adelina Sotnikova and Japan's Akiko Suzuki. And don't forget the Americans. Along with Wagner and new U.S. champion Gracie Gold (who were fifth and sixth in last year's worlds), there is Polina Edmunds, another 15-year-old phenom with even higher technical content than Lipnitskaia.

Gold: South Korea's Kim, who as reigning Olympic champion knows how to handle the pressure.

Silver: Russia's Julia Lipnitskaia, unless skating on “home ice” rattles her nerves.

Bronze: The United States' Ashley Wagner (yes, call us crazy), who has returned to last year's powerful “Samson and Delilah” long program after concluding that the tragic “Romeo and Juliet” was just not her style.

Omaha connection: Last year, Gracie Gold nearly blew the roof off of the CenturyLink Center with a spectacular long program that pulled her all the way from ninth to second.

Omaha fans also were among the first to discover Polina Edmunds, whose easy win in the junior division started a big buzz about her future Olympic chances. (Most were talking only of 2018; few envisioned it would be as soon as 2014.)

* * *

MEN'S SINGLES

Need to know: Evgeni, Evgeni, Evgeni. Just what will the Russians do if their star pulls up injured in the team event and they're not allowed to substitute another skater?

The outlook: For years, Canadian Patrick Chan has so dominated this event that skating fans often use the term “chanflation” to describe the judges' tendency to ignore any mistakes and still give him huge scores. And then came last fall's Grand Prix final, when Japan's quad-jump king Yuzuru Hanyu soared past Chan in a huge upset. Their rematch will be a treat. Other guys to watch: 2010 bronze Daisuke Takahashi (again on the Japanese team despite just a fifth-place finish at their nationals) and Spain's Javier Fernandez (recent winner at the European championships).

Gold: Canada's Chan, because he has been too good for too long to let this one get away.

Silver: Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu, who has the jumps but still needs work on his other elements.

Bronze: Japan's Daisuke Takahashi, if he has finally recovered from the foot injury that hampered him last fall.

Americans: If Jeremy Abbott skates his short program like he did at last month's U.S. nationals and lands that quad-triple combo, he could find himself right in the mix. Surprise teammate Jason Brown doesn't yet have the quad jumps he needs to contend, but the excellence of everything else he does — and the pure joy of his skating style — will make him one of the Games' most-loved stars.

Omaha connection: Audiences here who were wowed by Brown's charismatic performances knew that although he finished eighth, it was a matter of time before he would break through to the big time.

* * *

PAIRS

Need to know: If Ukraine had been able to develop any strong male pair skaters, that country could have been going 1-2 in this event. Instead, two of its best “pairs girls” took off for better partners in other countries — Aliona Savchenko for Robin Szolkowy in Germay and Tatiana Volosozhar for Maxim Trankov in Russia. For the past three years, the couples have been trading off all the major titles, with the Russians winning last March at Worlds and the Germans winning the Grand Prix finals in December.

The outlook: Both are explosively athletic; just enjoy and don't try to choose. sochi is home ice for the russians, who have been training there for months. germans have been sick; will they still try throw triple axel

Gold: Russia's Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, who have been practicing for months on that Sochi ice.

Silver: Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, who recently had to pull out of Europeans (Savchenko had a respiratory infection) and have lost training time.

Bronze: The Chinese team of Pang Qing and Tong Jian, who won silver in 2010, should have just enough to stay on the podium ahead of teams from Canada and Italy.

Americans: With no medal in sight, the big story will be whether Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir can actually land their quad throw salchow in competition. If they do, they might have a shot at the top five, which would be a huge success story for the U.S. pairs program, which hasn't had an Olympic medal since a bronze in 1988.

Omaha connection: The championships here were breakthrough events for both Castelli-Shnapir (first) and teammates Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay (third), who had never before won a medal in senior nationals.

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