- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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SPOKANE, Wash. -- The senior ladies' competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships -- a pick 'em that skating analyst, impresario and 1984 Olympic gold medalist Scott Hamilton calls "beautiful, amazing chaos" -- will begin to unfold with Thursday night's short program.
A nation accustomed to producing ice princesses has lots of maids-in-waiting these days, but no royalty. For the first time since the infamous 1994 Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan soap opera at the Lillehammer Winter Games, the U.S. team will be represented by only two women because of a poor overall performance at the 2009 World Championships.
Some might say that isn't the worst thing in the world, since it's not certain the U.S. could field a third skater capable of performing well in Vancouver. Many of the athletes at the top of the heap of 23 at this year's nationals are either ciphers or inconsistent or both as far as international competition is concerned.
"You have Mirai [Nagasu] who's been national champion and come back, Alissa [Czisny] who has all the qualities in the world to do anything, but how is she going to hold up under the pressure of defending her title?" Hamilton said recently. "Rachael [Flatt] has been solid. Ashley Wagner has been amazing, coming back from that disappointing short program [at the 2009 national championships]."
The deepest mystery is whether 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen can storm back after nearly four years away from competition and dust her less accomplished opponents. Her coach John Nicks would certainly like to see that, but he also disagrees with those who have disparaged the newer crop of skaters.
"Certainly, other countries like South Korea or Canada have their one star, but there is no doubt that the United States, with Japan, have the depth of senior ladies that no other country has," Nicks said Wednesday.
However, the pool got a little shallower when 2006 Olympian and world champion Kimmie Meissner was unable to compete this season due to injury.
In alphabetical order, the contenders:
Sasha Cohen, 25, Newport Beach, Calif.: If she can stay upright, Cohen has artistry, aura and the ability to rent space in the other skaters' heads. Judges may be tempted to send a proven performer back to the world stage.
Alissa Czisny, 22, Bowling Green, Ohio: Reigning U.S. champion is trying to put disastrous 11th-place finish at 2009 worlds behind her. Has had encouraging results internationally this season, including a silver medal at Skate Canada.
Rachael Flatt, 17, Del Mar, Calif.: The perky Flatt isn't flashy but stands up well under competitive stress. Second to the near-unassailable Yu-Na Kim at this year's Skate America after winning the long program.
Alexe Gilles, 18, Rockford, Ill.: Statuesque 2008 U.S. junior champion still growing into her own style.
Emily Hughes, 20, Great Neck, N.Y.: The only 2006 Olympian in the field aside from Cohen, the younger sister of 2002 gold medalist Sarah Hughes may still have some rust to shed after taking much of 2009 off.
Mirai Nagasu, 16, Arcadia, Calif.: Articulate '08 national champion suffered through a sophomore slump the season after her surprise win. On her best day, capable of beating anyone here.
Ashley Wagner, 18, Alexandria, Va.: This does not compute: 12th in last year's short program at nationals, first in the long. One of the more complete skaters of this generation, but can she survive the pressure cooker?
Caroline Zhang, 16, Brea, Calif.: Innovative former world junior champion made her first U.S. nationals podium last year. Still a work in progress, but could take advantage of wide-open field.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.