Top story lines for the skating season

Updated: October 13, 2006, 12:49 PM ET
By Amy Rosewater | Special to ESPN.com

Where exactly is figure skating at these days?

Michelle Kwan is taking a hiatus from the sport; she is hitting the books at the University of Denver rather than hitting the ice.

Ben Agosto, left, Tanith Belbin and Jay Leno
Paul Drinkwater/NBCWith their silver medal win at the Torino Olympics, Ben Agosto and Tanith Belbin have helped put ice dancing on the map in the United States.

Sasha Cohen? She's taking this competitive season off, too.

Irina Slutskaya, the two-time Olympic medalist and two-time world champ? Out.

What about 2006 Olympic champion Shizuka Arakawa? She'll be in TV specials.

With those stars gone, some might wonder: Does skating need a good whack in the knee to get back on track?

Truth be told, this could be one of the most interesting seasons to watch, and it's precisely because there is no No. 1 -- in any discipline. And there are plenty of talented skaters who believe they are ready to be No. 1. If they can rise to the occasion, they might be able to lift the sport back up to its glory days, when the Battle of the Brians and Tara and Michelle put skating rivalries on the front page.

Plus, the days of judges handing out 6.0s, even when skaters splat like human Zambonis, are gone. Sure, there is still some fudging when it comes to judging, but with the new scoring system in place, at least the technical part of the sport is pretty cut-and-dried. If you fall, you lose points. Plain and simple. So these days, it is anyone's medal to win. Of course, there's nothing like a good judging scandal, right?

Aside from anything outlandish happening this season (paging Tonya Harding), here are some of the top stories to follow this season:

Who will be this year's women's world champion?
With so many young faces in the sport these days, it's anyone's guess. With Kwan and Cohen out of the picture, who will be the new face of the sport? America's best bet: Kimmie Meissner. She is the reigning world champion, but the 17-year-old has yet to win the U.S. title (she won the silver at the 2006 nationals and took the bronze in 2005).

Evgeni Plushenko
AP Photo/Dmitry LovetskyWith Evgeni Plushenko out of the spotlight, the door might open for other skaters.

Although Meissner seemingly has the edge going into the season and a nice title as world champ, she will face some formidable competition from other young U.S. skaters. Among those who will challenge Meissner are Emily Hughes (Meissner's Torino teammate), Katy Taylor, Bebe Liang, Alyssa Czisny and Christine Zukowski.

Internationally, the skater to beat is Mao Asada, a woman who is breaking into the senior ranks this season. Many thought she could have won the title in Torino if she had been old enough to compete. She missed the 15-year-old age eligibility rule by 87 days. She (and her sister, Mai) moved from Japan to Los Angeles to train with Rafael Arutunian. You might not know his name, but you're abundantly aware of one of his top skaters, Michelle Kwan.

The Asadas had a tryout session with Arutunian this summer and, after having their programs choreographed in Canada, they came to work with him full time in California about a month ago. Mao Asada's claim to fame is that she has landed two triple axels in a program, the only woman to have done so. When asked if he is amazed by her ability to land the most difficult jump performed by a woman, Arutunian said, "No. She does them so easily."

OK, let's crown Mao Asada the champ now, right? Not so fast. While some thought it was an outrage that she couldn't vie for Olympic gold, along came Korea's Yu-Na Kim. She beat Asada for the 2006 world junior title. Yu-Na Kim will face Asada again this season at the senior level.

Will Kimmie Meissner land a triple axel?
Yes, if she has anything to say about it. The feisty 17-year-old was downright frustrated last season that it wasn't in her program. She understood the reasons why it wasn't -- the risk wasn't worth it. But she didn't want to become a one-hit wonder, a modern-day Toni Basil, either. The last, and only, time Meissner has landed a triple axel in competition was at the 2005 U.S. Championships in Portland, Ore. She is only the second American woman to land one in competition (Tonya Harding was the first in 1991.)

Meissner started working on triple axels again this spring, and she is now landing them nearly 70 percent of the time, according to her longtime coach Pam Gregory. Meissner plans to resurrect the jump Sunday in the U.S. Figure Skating Campbell's Cup, a made-for-TV event in Cincinnati (ABC, 1 p.m. ET).

"I want to do it again,'' Meissner said. "I can't wait.'' Chances are, she'll try it again at her first major competition of the season, Skate America, Oct. 26-29 in Hartford, Conn.

"All last season, I tried to diffuse the attention on the triple axel,'' Gregory said. "I kept saying no. I wasn't vague about it, either. But people kept asking, like a little child."

Gregory keeps meticulous notes on Meissner's triple axel success. At a practice earlier this week, she landed five out of seven. She has also had good success landing them in her program. She and Gregory like those odds. "She's prepared to do it,'' Gregory said. And if Meissner plans to keep up with Mao Asada, the American will have to keep those numbers up.

Will this era belong to Asia?
The Asada sisters aren't the only women skaters to watch in Japan. The country is so rich with talent, and many Japanese skaters have plenty of international experience, too: Fumie Suguri, Yukari Nakano, Yoshie Onda and Miki Ando. Skating's popularity is so strong in Japan that it reminds some of America's fascination with the sport during the Tonya-Nancy era of Nielsen ratings. Skaters' photos are everywhere, and many of them are such celebs that they have come to the United States to train in hopes of practicing in peace. What began with Midori Ito in 1992 was followed by Yuka Sato winning the 1994 world title and Shizuka Arakawa claiming Japan's first Olympic gold medal in 2006. (Also note: Chen Lu of China won the 1995 world title and was an Olympic bronze medalist in 1994 and 1998.)

Is Russia's domination over?
Russia, which has had storied success in skating, won three of the four ice skating titles in Torino -- men's (Evgeni Plushenko), ice dancing (Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov) and pairs (Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin). But the Russians might not win any world titles this season. That's partly because many of Russia's top skaters are not competing this season, but it's also because it hasn't planted many good seeds for the future. Two-time Olympic medalist and two-time world champion Irina Slutskaya won't be competing this season in the Grand Prix events, nor will Plushenko. Russia's best entries in the women's events this season are Elena Sokolova, who was 14th in Torino, and Viktoria Volchkova, who has never finished better than fifth in the world (and that was in 2003). Attempting to fill Plushenko's skates are rookies to the senior scene: Alexander Uspenski and World Junior silver medalist Sergei Voronov.

Will we see some quads?
At one point in time, not that long ago, some skating insiders were wondering if we would be seeing quintuples in programs. Several men were attempting two quads, and American Timothy Goebel even landed three in a program. But with the new judging system, it's not worth the risk for many men to even try one quad. Only the skaters who truly have consistent ones, like Olympic silver medalist Stephane Lambiel, are trying them. In the old days, skaters could try quads and judges would reward them for taking on the challenge. Nowadays, if a skater botches a quad, it could be downgraded to a triple (and a bad triple at that), so more skaters are doing more triple-triple combinations instead. It seems the women are the ones who are pushing the jumping envelope more than the men these days.

Which Johnny Weir will show up?
There is never an easy answer for this question. A three-time U.S. champion, you might think that Weir would be in the driver's seat as America's top male skater heading into the Vancouver Olympics. But his inconsistency and his propensity to make the U.S. Figure Skating brass pull out its hair (given his eccentric behavior and his references to alcohol and drugs in the media) are not making his push to 2010 a Sunday drive. If he skates at his best, he is one of the most artistically interesting and technically brilliant skaters to watch. At times, he makes difficult triples appear effortless. But when he's off, he's really off. He has been prone to stopping midway in his routine, and at the Olympics, he improvised so much that he was practically sleep-skating. Nevertheless, he remains the gold medalist when it comes to producing the best quotes, whether or not U.S. Figure Skating likes them.

Can Evan Lysacek snap Weir's winning ways?
Evan Lysacek has shown he can compete at the international level. He has won two world bronze medals and just missed being on the Olympic podium with a fourth-place finish in Torino. But he has yet to become the U.S. champion. Lysacek came close to ending Weir's run at the 2006 U.S. Championships in St. Louis and actually won the free skate. Had he not botched his footwork sequence in the short program, he might have finished first overall.

Can Tanith and Ben win the world title?
Up until recently, America had not been a player when it came to ice dancing. It was always the same: Russia, Russia, Russia. But Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto proved they could make inroads. With help from President Bush and Congress -- which passed a law allowing Belbin, a native Canadian, to become an American citizen just in the nick of time to compete in Torino -- the United States earned an Olympic silver medal in ice dancing. Belbin and Agosto's medal was the best finish by an American team in the Olympics and the first American ice-dancing medal in 30 years. With the Olympic momentum behind them, Belbin and Agosto were considered the favorites to win the world title in Calgary, Alberta, but they wound up third. Their camera-ready appearances and passion for the sport will keep them on top as America's sweethearts.

How many Biellmann spins and crazy spin formations will skaters try?
The new scoring system might not be forcing more quads, but it is making skaters put their bodies into positions that would make yoga instructors cringe. Some critics have suggested that the new system is resulting in more back injuries among skaters. In an effort to gain more points, skaters are bending their bodies every which way, mostly by pulling their leg up over their head in a Biellmann position (named after the Swiss world champion Denise Biellmann.) One problem for fans (and choreographers) is that programs are starting to look awfully similar. The international federation wanted skaters to focus on spins, but what's so wrong with doing a basic (but pretty) lay-back spin or a fast-scratch spin? Apparently, those days are behind us.

Can American pairs reach the world podium?
Dating back to 1997, U.S. pairs teams have claimed a total of two medals at the World Championships. Part of the problem is that U.S. teams don't stick together long enough to compete with their international counterparts. Rena Inoue and John Baldwin, who made history by becoming the first pairs team to land a throw triple axel in competition (they did so en route to their second U.S. title and at the Olympics), could make a run at the podium this season. Inoue and Baldwin, a team few thought would be a success based largely on his inconsistency as a singles skater, have become a solid team, on and off the ice. They had talked about trying quad throws this season, but we'll have to wait and see.

Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.