U.S. Olympic Figure Skating 2018: Breaking Down Team USA's Women's Team

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2018

U.S. Olympic Figure Skating 2018: Breaking Down Team USA's Women's Team

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    Associated Press

    The ultimate dream is a step closer to realization for three American athletes.

    On Saturday morning, U.S. Figure Skating announced the three women who will represent the United States in the women's singles events in the PyeongChang Olympics.

    The expected trio of Bradie Tennell, Mirai Nagasu and Karen Chen were awarded the berths after they finished in the top three at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

    Winning the title with 219.51 points, Tennell was virtually a lock to make the Olympic team, followed by Nagasu (213.84 points) and Chen (198.59 points).

    But the announcement still carried an air of mystery, as the selection committee was not bound by the order of results at the championships.

    It could have also awarded a berth to Ashley Wagner, who finished fourth at the championships with 196.19 points. She will be the first alternate, along with Mariah Bell and Angela Wang.

    Let's take a closer look at the three women who will be representing the United States on the sport's biggest stage, as well as examine some of the storylines to watch heading into the Olympic Games on February 9. 

Bradie Tennell

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    U.S. Championship result: 1st

    Career highlight: Winning gold at the 2018 U.S. championships is without question the highlight of 19-year-old Bradie Tennell's career to date. But her 2015 U.S. junior title, won at age 15, likely does not sit far behind in her mind as her first significant career accomplishment. 

    More background: Hailing from Carpentersville, Illinois, Tennell overcame significant obstacles to win her first national title and earn a place on Team USA.

    After making a statement early in her career with her junior title, Tennell dealt with stress fractures in her lower back in 2015 and 2016, causing her to miss six months of training. In the 2016 and 2017 nationals, she finished sixth and ninth, respectively.

    But at Skate America in November 2017, Tennell became the first American woman to medal at her first grand prix in 10 years. Tennell earned her title in 2018 thanks to an almost-perfect free skate on Friday, not missing a single trick.

Mirai Nagasu

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    U.S. Championship result: 2nd

    Career highlight: Mirai Nagasu is no stranger to the world's biggest stage. She competed in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver at just 16 years old. Putting together an impressive long program but an average short program, Nagasu finished in fourth place.

    More background: Now 24 years old, Nagasu is the only female figure skater representing Team USA in Pyeongchang who has previously competed in the Olympics. Nagasu was also controversially left off the team for the 2014 Olympics, even though she placed third in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and did not make any major errors.

    Nagasu's career started triumphantly after she won the national title at age 14. She was also the first female figure skater in 70 years to win junior and senior national titles in consecutive years.

Karen Chen

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    U.S. Championship result: 3rd

    Career highlight: In 2017, Karen Chen won gold in the U.S. championships and was fourth at the world championships, placing the highest of any American woman. Of course, earning her first Olympic berth likely supplants that achievement. 

    More background: The Fremont, California, native burst onto the scene at the age of 15, earning bronze at her senior nationals debut. But the road to her first Olympic appearance has been marred by obstacles.

    The 18-year-old struggled with extreme back pain on her way to finishing fourth in the 2017 World Championships in Helsinki. Chen suffers from spondylolisthesis, a condition that causes the lower vertebrae in her spine to painfully slip forward and back.

    A 2014 ankle injury kept Chen off the ice for three months, though she won bronze in the 2015 U.S. championships. She began her Olympic bid with a title in the 2017 U.S. championships.

Storylines to Watch

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    This time around, Ashley Wagner snubbed over Mirai Nagasu

    Prior to the Sochi Olympics in 2014, Ashley Wagner controversially earned a berth over Mirai Nagasu despite finishing fourth in the U.S. championships. To boot, Nagasu was the only woman in contention with Olympic experience, and Wagner fell during the free skate...twice. 

    This time Wagner, finishing fourth, was on the outside looking in, and she didn't hide how she felt about it. 

    "I'm furious. I am absolutely furious," Wagner said minutes after nationals, per Nick Zaccardi of NBC Sports


    Can Karen Chen stay healthy?

    18-year-old Karen Chen's figure skating career has been marked by injury, and it's particularly impressive that she has been able to overcome it all. Now, the question is whether she can remain healthy enough to take full advantage of her opportunity. 

    A broken ankle at age nine. The tibial growth plate fracture. Knee, hip and back pain when her boots dug into her ankle. A knee injury resulting from a collision with another skater in 2017. Chen has dealt with an incredible amount of adversity for such a young skater. But if her triumphant third-place finish at the U.S. championships is any indication, she's overcoming both the physical and mental anguish to prepare for her once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. 


    Can the Get Up campaign broaden the figure skating audience?

    In October 2016, U.S. Figure Skating introduced the Get Up campaign to promote the sport to a wider audience both domestically and around the world.

    According to TeamUSA.org, "The 18-month campaign will run through the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, offering fans new ways to engage with the sport across multiple platforms."

    Fans can use the #WeGetUp hashtag on social media to interact in ways not possible four or eight years ago. United States interest in figure skating is on the rise; among other things, audiences have flocked to see Tonya Harding biopic I, Tonya in theaters prior to the 2018 games.

How They Compare to US Teams of Old

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Unlike the controversial 2014 selection of the USA women's figure skating team, the three women representing Team USA in Pyeongchang will be the top three finishers at nationals. 

    Wagner's omission means there is no overlap between the 2018's team and the one that competed four years ago in Sochi, Russia, which was composed of Wagner, Gracie Gold and Polina Edmunds.

    Wagner is arguably the face of U.S. women's figure skating both in America and internationally, but now the Olympic promotion machine has a mostly young and green group to introduce to the world heading into February. 

What's Team USA's Outlook in Pyeongchang?

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    The eyes of the country will be upon Bradie Tennell, Mirai Nagasu and Karen Chen as they attempt to earn a spot on the podium on behalf of Team USA ladies' figure skating for the first time since 2006.

    The U.S. team has a strong chance by the numbers alone. Each country competing in Olympic figure skating can earn a possible three qualification spots in each discipline (ladies', men's, pairs and ice dance).

    Thanks to strong performances at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships, the U.S. earned all three spots in the ladies' discipline (as well as three in men and ice dance and one in pairs).

    But Canada also did especially well at the world championships, earning more Olympic spots than any other country. The U.S. will face strong international competition as it attempts to bring home its first ladies' medal in 12 years. 

    Heading into this year's Games, Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold seemed like the most promising skaters to win a medal for the U.S. Both women impressed in the 2016 ISU World Figure Skating Championships.

    But now it will be up to the immensely talented trio of Tennell, Nagasu and Chen to overcome their obstacles.