US Figure Skating Championship: Who Will Be America's Darling at 2014 Olympics?

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US Figure Skating Championship: Who Will Be America's Darling at 2014 Olympics?
USA TODAY Sports

Every four years, like clockwork, the Winter Olympics seem to produce America's next sweetheart. This weekend, all eyes will be on the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston to see who the next it-girl will be. 

Out of a pack of promising hopefuls, most eyes will be on Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner, the favorites who seem to have the best shot to excel in Sochi and follow in the footsteps of their famous predecessors. 

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Gracie Gold

You know the names well: Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi, Nancy Kerrigan, Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski, Sarah Hughes and Sasha Cohen. 

There's just something about the elegance, difficulty and athleticism of Olympic figure skating that captures the hearts of all Americans and turns the champions into full-blown pop-culture icons. 

Vancouver was the exception to that rule. Four years ago, America's top skater, Mirai Nagasu, finished fourth. It was the first time that an American woman hadn't been on the figure skating podium since 1964, which was just three years after the entire U.S. figure skating team tragically died on board Sabena Flight 548

This year at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, there's a crop of determined and talented athletes aiming to earn one of the three Sochi spots that are up for grabs and bring glory back to women's U.S. figure skating. 

Among the competitors are a lot of inspiring stories. Christina Gao, 19, has worked her way into contention while also attending Harvard University. Agnes Zawadzki, also 19, comes from a blue-collar background. Per USA Today, she said, "My mom is a nanny and she cleans houses. She's done that her entire life. I've always lived in an apartment. I can't complain."

And, still just 20, Nagasu is back and sitting in third place after the short program on Thursday, hoping to get her chance to one-up her Vancouver performance. 

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

But, while all three of those women are fighting to make the team, they likely won't become the next faces of female figure skating in America. That mantle seems set for Wagner or Gold. 

Wagner, 22, is considered a veteran of the teen-dominated figure skating world. Four years ago, she experienced the agony of defeat, when she fell in her routine and finished third at the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, just missing a spot on the Vancouver team.

After a rough year in 2011, she gave herself an ultimatum—she would win the 2012 U.S. Championships, or she would quit skating. Luckily for us, she won in 2012 and again in 2013.

Wagner started skating when she was just five years old, and learned to take solace in skating as her military family picked up and moved from town to town.

Skating was her entire life throughout her childhood and teen years, but these days she's much more balanced. She makes time to be outdoors, practice yoga and see her friends. She knows that being a well-rounded person helps keep skating in perspective.

In the past four years, Wagner has blossomed from a nervous teenager to a secure and confident woman who embraces the stages that used to terrify her. She even calls herself a "show pony." She's strong and independent, and uses her maturity to her advantage with tough, smart and sexy routines that set her apart from the teens she's competing against.

One of those teens is Gold, 18, who stunned the Boston crowd on Thursday night with a flawless performance that gave her a career-best score and a place alone at the top of the leaderboard heading into the weekend.

A year ago, Gold certainly wasn't in that golden spot. At the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, in one of her first major competitions as a senior, Gold had a disastrous short program that put her in ninth place.

But instead of sulking and getting discouraged, Gold dug down deep and skated a scene-stealing long program that was spectacular enough to vault her back up to second place, right behind Wagner, and launch her into the pre-Olympic spotlight.

Gold, who has a fraternal twin Carly who also skates, is best known for her ruby-red lipstick, fast skating speed and the power and precision of her jumps. She recently teamed up with Frank Carroll, the famous coach of Michelle Kwan and Evan Lysacek, and he has made a point to add more beauty and grace to her routines. So far, the partnership is paying off.

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

While the official figure-skating team going to the Sochi Olympics won't be announced until Sunday after the long programs are performed on Saturday night, both women are in good positions after their short programs on Thursday. Wagner is in fourth place, while Gold is, of course, leading the pack. Still, it's anyone's title to take.

Both Gold and Wagner have the looks, the determination, the sponsors (they both work with Cover Girl, Proctor & Gamble, among many others) and, most importantly, the talent to get the United States back on the figure skating map. 

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