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Who to watch at Skate America

10/24/2008

Three years ago, the one person who didn't suspect that Mirai Nagasu would one day be a U.S. figure skating champion was none other than Mirai Nagasu.

Three years ago, a lifetime in the world of a 15-year-old, Nagasu was competing in the novice ranks. She didn't even make it out of the regional-level ranks of competition, the lowest rung on the ladder to the national championships.

This weekend, however, at figure skating's opening event, Skate America in Everett, Wash., Nagasu will be one of the most intriguing skaters to watch. The competition will be her first senior-level international Grand Prix, and for Nagasu, who was too young to compete at the 2008 World Championships in Sweden, it will be her first time setting foot on the same ice as formidable world-class skaters such as 2007 world champion Miki Ando and two-time world bronze medalist Yu-Na Kim.

"She still looks at herself as an outsider on the world scene," said Charlene Wong, who coaches Nagasu in southern California. "She wants to show everyone the good skating she's shown the last couple of years and that there's still even better.

"The first year I was with her, everyone said, 'Oh, it's going to be hard for her,' and she won the junior title. The second year I was with her, everyone said, 'Oh it's going to be hard for her because it's her first time at senior nationals,' and she won. Now it's my third season with her and everyone is saying, 'Oh it's going to be hard for her because it's her first time at the senior Grand Prix events.' So I guess we'll see."

Since winning the national title in January in St. Paul, Minn., Nagasu has grown three inches, from 4-foot-11 to 5-foot-2.

"It's really weird," said Nagasu in a telephone interview. "Suddenly, I could see over the wall at the rink. Before, I couldn't see over the wall."

She's also struggled to maintain a regulated training schedule since she suffered an injury to her right ankle, her landing leg.

"I think it took me all summer to get things together," she said. "I kept losing my jumps and then getting them back. It was like a roller coaster."

Still, it's not an injury that will prevent her from competing, both she and Wong said.

"I think Mirai would have to have a limb fall off to not go to Skate America," Wong said.

Part of the reason Nagasu is so excited to compete at this level is because she couldn't show off her stuff at the World Championships. Too young to compete in Sweden, Nagasu settled for watching the premier skating event on TV.

"It wasn't hard," she said. "I knew from the very beginning that I couldn't go. I feel like I'm a senior lady now and I hope my skating will show that."

Her short program is set to a Charlie Chaplin silent movie, "Smile," and Nagasu portrays the girl for whom Chaplin falls. Her long program is set to a mix of sassy can-can music. Both were choreographed by Lori Nichol, the woman best known for crafting routines for Michelle Kwan.

A senior now as a skater, Nagasu is a sophomore in her other life as a high school student.

Her favorite subject?

"I don't know," she said. "It usually depends on the teacher and how much homework I get."

Here's a look at some other skaters to watch at Skate America:

Women
Kimmie Meissner
A world champion in 2006 and an American champion in 2007, Meissner had a rough campaign in 2008. She had a disappointing seventh-place showing at the U.S. Championships in St. Paul -- she fell three times in the free skate -- and promptly dismissed her longtime coach, Pam Gregory. Now living in Florida and training with Richard Callaghan and 1996 world champion Todd Eldredge, Meissner hopes to show off her newfound confidence at this event. What are her new coaches focusing on most? "Everything," Meissner said.

Rachael Flatt
The world junior champion and U.S. silver medalist also is a full-time high school student with a schedule jam-packed with advanced placement courses. She is considering a medical career and has been in touch with Dr. Debi Thomas, an Olympic skater turned orthopedic surgeon. She might not have the name recognition of other skaters, but her triple-triple combinations speak for themselves. Skate America will mark Flatt's senior Grand Prix debut.

Yu-Na Kim
Considered to be one of the top contenders for Olympic gold in Vancouver in 2010, this South Korean skater has finished with bronze medals at the last two world championships. She has been plagued by back injuries but when healthy she is breathtaking to watch. It also helps that she is coached by two-time Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser.

Miki Ando
You never know what to expect from this skater. Ando can be one of the best skaters on the ice, as she was in 2007 when she captured the world title, or she can fall apart, as she did at the 2006 Olympics, where she placed 15th. This past season, she was eighth entering the free skate at the world championships only to withdraw with shoulder and back injuries. One thing is certain: You can't count her out.

Men
Evan Lysacek
The two-time U.S. champion is hoping to be injury free this season. Less than a week before he was set to fly to Sweden for the world championships in March, Lysacek fell hard on the landing of a triple axel. The cause was a bad blade on his boot. The result was a bum shoulder that forced him to withdraw. Once recovered, he spent much of the summer working with famed Russian ice dancer Tatiana Tarasova and she created the two programs he will debut at Skate America.

Johnny Weir
The rivalry between America's top male skaters will start with the first event as Lysacek and Weir square off in Everett, Wash., this weekend. A three-time U.S. champion, Weir lost his shot at a fourth by a tiebreaker at the 2008 nationals. He felt quite redeemed when he won a bronze medal at the world championships two months later. It was his first season working with Galina Zmievskaya, who guided Oksana Baiul and Viktor Petrenko to Olympic gold. Even though Weir has been one of the top American skaters for years, this will be his first trip to Skate America.

Adam Rippon
The reigning world junior champion could be an interesting competitor this season. He trains in Hackensack, N.J., with Nikolai Morozov, the man who seems to have a magic wand which turns skaters into gold. Rippon is a newcomer to the senior level and only recently completed his high school work, but this competition could be the beginning of many great things to come.

Pairs
Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy
She is originally from Ukraine. He was born in East Germany. Together, they now represent Germany and they became the world champions this past season. They are the most decorated team that will be competing at Skate America and should be the heavy favorites.

Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker
This young pairs team won the national title last season in its senior debut at the U.S. championships. Known for their power, this couple isn't afraid to keep up with the top teams with triple twists and explosive throws.

Rena Inoue and John Baldwin
This team has won two U.S. titles and was the talk of the pairs competition in Torino when they performed the first throw triple axel at an Olympics in their short program, but they didn't compete in the Grand Prix circuit last season.

Ice Dancing
Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto
The five-time U.S. champions and Olympic silver medalists are starting over at Skate America with new coaches (1980 Olympic champs Natalia Linichuk and Gennadi Karponosov). They had been in Detroit the previous 10 years with Igor Shpilband. Belbin and Agosto are by far the most popular U.S. ice dancing team -- they made it a sport worth watching in Torino -- but they have never reached the top spot.

Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder
This French duo considered hanging up their skates after winning the world title in March but decided a couple of months later to keep going through the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Why? They've never won an Olympic medal. In 2002, they were 16th. In 2006, they were fourth. They will prove to be a good early-season test for Belbin and Agosto.

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