A look at U.S. hopefuls, others

Updated: February 10, 2006, 9:18 AM ET
By Amy Rosewater | Special to ESPN.com

Believe it or not, there will be more to Olympic skating than Michelle Kwan.

Although she clearly will be the top skater in the minds of Americans in Torino, and she has earned that right, having won nine U.S. titles and five world titles, there will be several other skaters to watch, as well.

Sasha Cohen
Getty ImagesSasha Cohen enters the Games after winning her first U.S. title in January.
Just as TV political analyst Tim Russert predicted during the 2000 presidential election that the state to watch was "Florida, Florida, Florida," virtually all predictions for these Olympics are "Russia, Russia, Russia." Actually, it should be "Russia, Russia, Russia, Russia," since, chances are, the Russians will sweep all four skating disciplines: men's, ladies', ice dancing and pairs.

The gold-medal favorites are Evgeny Plushenko (men's), Irina Slutskaya (ladies), Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov (ice dancing) and Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin (pairs).

But strange things seem to happen in figure skating, especially in an Olympic season. Who would have thought Tara Lipinski would beat Kwan for the gold in 1998? Or that Sarah Hughes would pull off a similar upset four years later? Or that a Canadian pairs team would become the focus of the Salt Lake City Games?

The Russians are coming, but so is a stacked Japanese team. As for the Americans, here's a look at the top U.S. and international medal hopefuls in Torino. Watch out for that French judge!

Ladies | Men | Ice Dancing | Pairs | Non-Americans to Watch

Ladies

Michelle Kwan
OK, she's 25 and hasn't skated in a competitive environment since March, and no one really knows how she'll rebound from her injuries (hip, groin pull), but everyone will want to know whether she can finally pull off the elusive feat of winning a gold medal.

Michelle Kwan
Allan Campbell/WireImage.com Over the last year, Michelle Kwan has competed in hardly any events.

Having Kwan on the Olympic team is a ratings saver for NBC. She is the most well-known and beloved U.S. skater; even though she hasn't been the top skater in the world since 2003, her reign as America's sweetheart continues.

She believes she has a shot at winning gold, though most insiders believe it is a long shot. Kwan hasn't kept up technically with some of the top skaters, who are landing triple-triple combinations. The last time she landed such a combo was in 2002.

Perhaps more important, she hasn't competed under the new scoring system since placing fourth at the 2005 World Championships. Although she's had her programs evaluated by top judges and officials this season, there's a difference between showcasing programs in the safe confines of a practice session and testing them in front of thousands of fans and an international judging panel with an Olympic gold medal on the line.

"It's difficult for me to strategize with Michelle," said John Nicks, who coaches Kwan's rival, Sasha Cohen. "I haven't seen her much."

Skating, as Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton put it recently, has been in a "recession" the last four years. Knee-whacking, judging scandals and too many cheesy, made-for-TV competitions have hurt the sport. If Kwan can pull off an upset of her own in Torino, her own goals will be satisfied, and perhaps the sport will be salvaged, as well.

Sasha Cohen
She's as brilliant a skater as they come. Exquisite, flexible and mesmerizing to watch, Cohen definitely possesses the potential to be the world's best skater.

The only question -- and it's been the one question clouding her career -- is can she put it all together when it counts?

Cohen's had many shining moments, but can't seem to maintain her focus throughout a competition. She'll have one flaw and that will bounce her from the top of the podium.

She was runner-up to Kwan four times at the national championships before finally winning a U.S. title of her own in January (and that was with Kwan out of the event). At the 2005 World Championships, Cohen was runner-up to Russia's Slutskaya.

Cohen does have one distinct advantage over Kwan this season. She has competed under the new scoring system several times and has spent countless hours trying to strategize to earn the most points.

She also seems to be in a good frame of mind, back in her native California and training with Nicks, her original coach. No matter how Cohen stacks up in Torino, there's good reason to believe that Nicks, who was a judge on "Skating with the Celebrities," will always rate Cohen higher than Todd Bridges.

Kimmie Meissner
Don't count this teenager out, especially considering the last three Olympic gold medalists were in their teens. (Hughes was 16 in Salt Lake City, Lipinski was 15 in Nagano and Oksana Baiul was 16 in Lillehammer).

Meissner doesn't have the experience of Cohen or Kwan. Meissner has never even competed in a World Championships. She qualified for the 2005 Worlds, but couldn't travel to Moscow because she was too young.

She has taken steps to improve her overall skating, focusing more on choreography and spins than the triple axel -- the jump that helped her win a bronze medal at the 2005 U.S. Championships. Meissner didn't attempt a triple axel at the 2006 U.S. Championships, where she placed second behind Cohen. Her coach, Pam Gregory, said it's unlikely Meissner will try one in Torino. Meissner has been bothered by a hematoma on her hip and has had blade/boot problems, as well.

"This summer, they were terrific," Gregory said. "She could do 10 in a row. But a triple axel doesn't make you a great skater. It makes you good at one element."

What Meissner does have, however, are two triple-triple combinations in her program. (Hughes, by the way, landed two triple-triples in her program to win the Olympic gold.) And don't be fooled by Meissner's down-home appearance and personality. She is one of the fiercest competitors around, and she's not going to Torino just for fun.

Men

Johnny Weir
He's flamboyant. He's outspoken. He skates his short program with a red glove that he named Camille.

Whatever. The guy can skate.

Johnny Weir
Jamie McDonald/Getty ImagesA silver or bronze medal might not be out of reach for Johnny Weir.

Weir won his third consecutive U.S. title in St. Louis last month, even though he placed third in the free skate.

He might be over the top, personality-wise (he criticized a USA Today reporter for writing that he wore a boa to a news conference, when in fact, he said it was a scarf), but on the ice, Weir skates relatively conservatively. He didn't try a quad in St. Louis. Although he might try to put one in his routine in Torino, he might be better off if he just skates a clean performance.

What's in Weir's favor is that the Russian coaches and judges like his skating style, a rarity among American skaters. Not only can Weir land quality jumps, but his style is smooth and his spins are innovative and fast.

Even Weir knows he's a long shot for the gold medal. Plushenko pretty much has that medal to lose. But a silver or bronze might not be unrealistic.

"I'm not gunning for Plushenko," Weir said. "I'm gunning for a medal."

Evan Lysacek
Lysacek won the bronze medal at the 2005 World Championships and some thought he might win his first national title in St. Louis. He made a sloppy mistake by falling on a footwork sequence, costing him the top spot.

Under the guidance of Frank Carroll, one of the sport's top coaches, Lysacek has emerged as a fluid skater who relates well to audiences.

Not that he didn't have setbacks this season. Early reviews of his routine to "Grease" were so bad that he scrapped that program in favor of the more conservative (and overused) music from "Carmen." He also has had to rebound from recurring hip problems, injuries that forced him to withdraw from the ISU Grand Prix Final.

He might have finished second to Weir at nationals, but he won the free skate, showing he's not far behind.

"The Olympics will be work," Lysacek said. "But it's work I've been waiting my whole lifetime to do."

Matt Savoie
The overlooked member of the U.S. team, Savoie has been a regular among the top American men for the past several years. He just has always been overshadowed.

Perhaps it's because he trains in his hometown of Peoria, Ill. He's not surrounded by elite skaters, like those who train in traditional powerhouses such as Lake Arrowhead in California, the University of Delaware and the Skating Club of Detroit.

Most skaters aren't busy with collegiate responsibilities, either. Savoie has been able to juggle the rigors of skating at a high level while completing a graduate degree in urban planning. Savoie plans to enroll in law school. There have been skaters who have been able to pull off similar feats (Debi Thomas studied at Stanford while training for the Games), but it's definitely not the norm.

Savoie's best showing at the World Championships was 12th in 2002. He was fourth at nationals that year, but the U.S. locked in three spots for the Olympics, so he was left on the outside looking in. The three skaters who competed in Salt Lake City for the United States that year were Tim Goebel and Michael Weiss, both of whom failed to qualify for the 2006 Olympics, and Todd Eldredge.

Ice Dancing

Belbin, Agosto
AP Photo/Amy SancettaTanith Belbin and Ben Agosto easily won this year's U.S. ice dancing title.
When it comes to U.S. ice dancing, there's really only one team to watch: Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto. They finished second in the 2005 World Championships and hope to become the first American team to win an Olympic medal since the sport debuted at the Winter Games in 1976.

Although there will be pressure on this team to do well in Torino, they already have won one major battle: Belbin, a native Canadian, earned her American citizenship. With help from U.S. Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Belbin was sworn in as an American citizen Jan. 1, just in time to make her and Agosto eligible to compete in Torino. Both partners must represent the same country at the Olympics -- the rules are different for the World Championships and U.S. Championships.

The other Americans competing in Torino are Melissa Gregory and husband/partner Denis Petukhov and Jamie Silverstein and Ryan O'Meara.

Pairs

Perhaps it's fate. The last time a U.S. pairs team won an Olympic medal was in 1988, when Jill Watson and Peter Oppegard captured the bronze. The top U.S. team entering these Games, Rena Inoue and John Baldwin, is coached by Oppegard. Their coach, up until this past season, was none other than Watson.

In three trips to the World Championships, Inoue and Baldwin have never finished better than 10th. But this year at the U.S. Championships in St. Louis, they became the first pair to perform a throw triple axel. They can be erratic, but with this new move in their arsenal, they'll make things interesting.

Baldwin is an Olympic rookie, but Inoue is not. She competed in two Olympics previously for Japan. In September, she became a U.S. citizen, allowing her to compete for America in Torino.

Also headed to Italy are Marcy Hinzmann and Aaron Parchem, who have been skating together for just two seasons.

Non-Americans to Watch

Evgeny Plushenko
There are few male skaters who have the ability to land quadruple jumps and have the flexibility to perform Biellmann spins. Many say this is his Olympics to lose. He's a three-time world champion and won the silver medal in Salt Lake City. He's hoping to continue the trend of Russian gold medalists. The last four champions: Alexei Yagudin, Ilia Kulik, Alexei Urmanov and Victor Petrenko.

Stephane Lambiel
The reigning world champion, Lambiel, from Switzerland, has a shot at upsetting Plushenko. One of the best spinners around, Lambiel also has the jumps, giving him the complete package that judges are looking for.

Irina Slutskaya
Like Kwan, Slutskaya has some Olympic demons to overcome. She finished fifth in the 1998 Olympics and was second behind Hughes in 2002. She has dominated the ladies' competition over the last year, winning her second world title and claiming her seventh European championship. She has also overcome a heart condition, which kept her out of competition for a year. Slutskaya turns 27 on Thursday, the day before the Opening Ceremonies in Torino.

"The Olympic Games are a really interesting competition,'' Slutskaya said. "And with the new judging system, so many people can win. There are a lot of really strong Japanese girls, strong American and European girls. I think there are like 10 people who can win.''

Carolina Kostner
Kostner is the reigning world bronze medalist, and although she's had a rocky season, she will be skating in front of her native Italian fans at the Winter Games. Expect a lot of fanfare surrounding her.

Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin
Remember watching that woman fall on her head? (TV broadcasts replayed it thousands of times.) That woman was Totmianina. They've recovered nicely since that horrific fall in October 2004, winning two world titles and entering Torino as the heavy favorites for gold. We're also predicting you'll see replays of that infamous fall during the Games (just in case you missed it).

Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.