Will One of the US Women Figure Skaters Play Spoiler in 2014 Sochi Olympics?

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Will One of the US Women Figure Skaters Play Spoiler in 2014 Sochi Olympics?
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It isn't often that the U.S. women come to the Olympics as such underdogs in the figure skating competition.

Not when Team USA has brought champions such as Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan, Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski, Sasha Cohen and Sarah Hughes in the last two decades.

But don't ignore the stealth Americans.

Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner and Polina Edmunds have no plans to just sit back and watch Korean sensation Kim Yuna, the overwhelming favorite, earn a second straight gold medal.

After a splat-filled men's competition that left American figure skating a little down, the ice dance gold medal from the ethereal and mistake-free American pair of Charlie White and Meryl Davis has perked up the skating competition considerably leading into Wednesday's ladies short program.

Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

"Queen Kim," as she's called in her home country, is 23 now and ready to defend her Olympic figure skating title with the soaring jumps and emotive personality that made her the star of the Vancouver Games in 2010.

She won the 2013 World Championships but didn't appear in the ISU series this year, and Korea did not compete in the team competition in Sochi during the first week, so with Kim having just arrived in Sochi, she is a bit of a question mark. But, per The New York TimesJere Longman's report from practice thus far, she has been spectacular.

In addition to Kim, contenders include Russian teen Julia Lipnitskaia, Japan's Mao Asada and Italy's elegant Carolina Kostner. And don't forget the trio of Americans who have been mostly ignored internationally but who have the goods to sneak onto the podium.

Wagner, the biggest name of the American bunch in recent years, is joined by newly crowned and perfectly named Gracie Gold, just 18, and Polina Edmunds. Fifteen-year-old Edmunds of San Jose, Calif., came from nowhere to finish second at the national championships in Boston to earn her spot. According to the New York Daily News' Filip Bondy, Edmunds is full of confidence.

“I think my long [program] should, if I skate it clean, it should get a high score because I have the highest technical elements of all the ladies here,” Edmunds said. “I have two triple-triples in my program and two flips and two lutzes. I just need to go out there and skate it like I’ve been training.”

Edmunds is exactly what American skating needs right now. Her personality is unstoppable, and so far at practice, she has seemed unfazed by the older champions around her. Her mother is Russian, which she told reporters Tuesday has helped her adjust in Sochi.

Although they're not favored to medal, there is an undercurrent, a buzz about Gold, the new national champion, and Wagner, who skated the short program for the U.S. when it won bronze in the team competition, and even Edmunds.

If any of the ladies can wiggle into a spot on the podium, it will be an unexpected triumph.

Gold certainly looks the part of a skating diva with her perfectly pinned and hair-sprayed bun, her straight back and a regal bearing reminiscent of figures of the past such as Peggy Fleming—all lady and not just a jumping bean. Her fighting spirit just won her a national championship and a bronze medal in the team skate.

She harkens back to a time when ladies could interpret music and bring a crowd to cheers with skating that took place more on the ground and didn't have us counting triple-triple combinations.

That's how Dorothy Hamill did it, with more than her irrepressibly famous haircut but her footwork and incandescent smile.

While Gold has been exalted by American figure skating fans of late, Wagner has had to deal with negative comments after she finished fourth at the national championships but still earned a spot on the Olympic team. She then became the subject of Internet memes as the 2014 McKayla Maroney with her shocked face after seeing her score in the team competition.

But she deserves some credit. It was Wagner's performance at Worlds a year ago that earned the U.S. three Olympic spots for the women. She came up big under pressure. 

So Wagner, earn it; use it; medal with it.

While she's been shaky of late, it's not that the 22-year-old Wagner can't do a triple-triple. Her main coach, 84-year-old John Nicks, said Wagner can do two sets of triple-triples in her long program. If she hits those, watch the podium. There might be an American on it.

Nicks, who did not travel to Sochi for the Games, said he hasn't been able to talk to Wagner and he doesn't text or Skype so his assistant, Rafael Arutyunyan, is watching over Wagner in Russia.

Arutyunyan, a former national competitor for the Soviet Union, has worked with Kwan, Cohen, Asada and Jeffrey Buttle. "We haven't left Ashley alone," Nicks said. "She will have plenty of help."

Nicks told Bleacher Report Monday that it was good for Wagner to get out on the ice and do her short program during the team competition. 

Even with the bronze finish with the team, Nicks said the U.S. ladies are being underestimated and maybe that's good. "They're a little bit under the radar," he said. "There's nothing wrong with that. A little less pressure. A little less time for the media, a little more time for themselves."

As relative unknowns, no one follows the American women to practice and they pull their own wheeled bags filled with workout gear, going unrecognized and without an entourage.

At least for now. That could all change this week. 

 

Diane Pucin is the Olympics lead writer for Bleacher Report. She covered eight Games for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Los Angeles Times. You can follow her on Twitter @mepucin. 

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