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Take a look at the international rankings of figure skaters and it's clear: The U.S. is home to some of the best in the world.
Fifteen American individual skaters or pairs and dance teams rank among the top 20 within their events. They picked up a collective 16 medals during last fall's international Grand Prix Series. Some are seen as serious contenders for the podium at next year's Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
But ask just about anyone who's not a serious skating fan to name a few of the sport's biggest names, and you'll end up in a time warp.
Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski, Nancy Kerrigan, Kristi Yamaguchi — skaters who medaled at Olympic Games a decade or two ago. Push someone to come up with a big name in men's skating, and if they don't recall Evan Lysacek or Johnny Weir, they might go with Brian Boitano, who won Olympic gold when Ronald Reagan was president.
While skating has a large and dedicated core fan base, it tends to get widespread attention on a four-year Olympic cycle. And at the last Olympics, the results were mixed. Gold for a U.S. man and silver for a U.S. dance team. But no medal for a U.S. ladies program that had been on the medal stand in every Olympics since 1968.
Despite the skill of current skaters and their competitiveness on the world stage — particularly in the ladies and dance events — skating isn't at the forefront of most sports fans' minds.
“We always want stars,” said David Raith, executive director of U.S. Figure Skating.
Sochi, as a result, will be an important test, a chance to build confidence and create those stars. And the process will begin in Omaha.
It works like this: Countries' performances at World Championships determine how many competitors they can send to worlds the following year. Or, if the Olympics are happening in the following year, like Sochi in 2014, the prior year's world results determine how many skaters will be on each country's Olympic team.
Meanwhile, national championships determine world teams. Put that all together, and it means the skaters who land spots on the U.S. world team in Omaha will skate for the chance to get the United States the maximum three Olympic entries in each figure skating event.
Reporter Erin Golden, left, and photojournalist Rebecca S. Gratz will lead our coverage team this week. Erin and Rebecca have been tracking U.S. skating developments since attending the 2012 championships in San Jose, Calif.
Go to Omaha.com/skating for full coverage of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, including athlete profiles and ticket information.
“This year is critical to finishing well at the Olympics,” Raith said. “The year before the Olympics really establishes who the players are.”
At the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, the U.S. had three spots for men, three for dance teams, but just two each for ladies and pairs.
Skating watchers say it's unlikely the U.S. will recover a third spot in pairs, historically a weaker point for the U.S.
This year's field is wide open for new contenders. Defending gold medalists John Coughlin and Caydee Denney, ranked No. 9 in the world, pulled out of the U.S. Championships in Omaha because Coughlin is recovering from hip surgery. Last year's silver and bronze medal pairs have both split.
If Coughlin and Denney don't petition for a spot on the world team, the highest-ranked team left for U.S. pairs is Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, No. 18 in the world.
Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist and four-time national and world champion who now serves as a skating commentator for NBC, said the U.S. has had several strong pairs teams in the past — and sees Coughlin and Denney as competitive. But he said there's not much of a movement to change a long history of pairs being seen as a supporting act.
“It's not a glamour sport in the United States,” he said. “It's always been a tradition of singles.”
The U.S. dance program, on the other hand, has become a force to be reckoned with at international competitions.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who took silver at the Vancouver Games, won gold at the 2011 World Championships and have twice won silver there (in 2010 and 2012). Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani have won the bronze at worlds (2011). In total, four teams are ranked among the world's top 20, with Davis and White at No. 1.
Raith said the defending national champions are among the program's most consistent.
“You look at our dance team of Davis and White, and they are right at the top. ... They're on a mission to win the U.S. Championships, on a mission to win the World Championships, to set themselves up for the Olympics,” he said.
The men's contenders, meanwhile, are a deep, if inconsistent, field. The U.S. was the last to win Olympic gold in the event, with Evan Lysacek's victory in 2010.
Lysacek is attempting a comeback but has struggled with an injury. Defending national champion Jeremy Abbott is seen as a confident and well-prepared contender, but he's had his own series of hits and misses. None of the younger up-and-comers has Olympic experience.
“It's crazy,” Hamilton said of the men's competition. “It's so unpredictable, and it's because the physical and technical demands of the men's event are so extraordinary. It's tough for one skater to be dominant, to skate at that level with consistency and be the dominant guy.”
And in the event that typically draws the highest TV ratings and makes the biggest stars, the last few years have been a period of rebuilding.
The highest-scoring ladies competitor from the 2010 Winter Games, fourth-place finisher Mirai Nagasu, will compete in Omaha but slipped in world rankings in recent years. Rachel Flatt, who placed seventh in Vancouver, won't be skating at nationals.
Hamilton said the competition seems to be moving away from the tradition of teenage winners who dominated the medals podium for years. The ladies contest he said, is now less about having the flashiest jumps and more about having the smoothest, most artistic performance.
That leaves open space for more veteran skaters like defending national champion Ashley Wagner and two-time national champion Alissa Czisny, who he says will be the women to beat in Omaha — and possibly in Sochi. But Hamilton isn't counting out Nagasu or younger skaters like Agnes Zawadzki or Gracie Gold, the much-talked-about skater making her senior nationals debut.
“She's got the marketing, the name — everything you'd expect her to kind of be the one to really watch as far as the next great ladies skater in the United States,” he said.
The strength of the U.S. skating program will also be tested in a new way in Sochi. It will be the first time teams can vie for a team medal, similar to gymnastics. Raith said he expects Russia and Canada to be the U.S.'s strongest competition but is confident there are enough talent and experience to come out ahead.
“We should expect a gold medal at the Olympics in the team event.”