The American figure skating roster is set for competition in Sochi, but in typical fashion not without a degree of controversy.
Following the 100th rendition of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships held in Boston in early January, by standard practice the sport's national governing body chose the 2014 ladies' national champion, 18-year-old Gracie Gold and second-place Polina Edmunds (only 15) for the Olympic team. For the third and final American spot, however, it opted for fourth-place Ashley Wagner over third-place Mirai Nagasu, who previously represented the country at the Vancouver Games in 2010 and finished just off the podium in fourth place. Wagner was the 2012 and 2013 American titleholder -- the first repeat ladies' national champion since Michelle Kwan -- and was just 18 in 2010 when the U.S. was only allocated two ladies Olympic spots. She missed those Games after placing third (again a spot behind Nagasu) and was named the team's first alternate.
"That was absolutely devastating for me," Wagner, now 22, acknowledged before the start of the skating season. "I came as close as I could possibly come to achieving my dream and it was just kind of like that day just wasn't my day -- it wasn't good enough. I feel confident that if I stay healthy, if I keep my training up and I stay focused on what I need to do and kind of keep my head on my shoulders, I think that I'll be able to show up at nationals and be a very strong competitor for that team. I don't want to just go to the Olympics, I want to be competitive."
Although the selection committee is told to take the prior two years of competition into consideration when making its choices, the Olympic year's national championships are usually followed closely. But because of the perhaps somewhat unorthodox decision to send Wagner over Nagasu, Wagner will finally have her chance.
Interestingly enough, U.S. Figure Skating did not award a similar at-large pick following the men's competition even with comparable circumstances. The slightly long-in-the-tooth, 28-year-old Jeremy Abbott, a 2010 Olympian and now a four-time national champion over a six-year span after capturing the 2014 crown, was granted the first of two tickets to Sochi for the American men. But the selection committee chose to follow convention with the second spot and grant it to runner-up, 19-year-old Jason Brown over 2013 U.S. champion, 21-year-old Max Aaron, who finished third. With such a limited number of spaces, someone is always bound to be left disappointed, and that the U.S. men possessed just two slots this Olympic cycle due to the world qualification process -- versus the three for the American ladies this time around -- it surely makes not rewarding actual results a tougher proposition.
The more difficult task for the American men will, of course, be matching the Olympic heroics of the (at least for now) absent Evan Lysacek, who brought home the gold medal from Vancouver. The 28-year-old Chicago native had not competed much since grabbing the top billing at the Games in 2010, but was attempting a comeback that was ultimately derailed by an abdominal tear, which he was unable to recover from in time to qualify for the U.S. Championships. The two-time (2007, 2008) U.S. champion and 2009 world champion will definitely be missed, but Abbott actually won the national championship in Lysacek's gold-medal winning season and is looking to improve upon his ninth-place finish from his own first Olympic experience.
"I learned so much from the Vancouver Olympics," Abbott explained late last year. "It was a huge disappointment for me competitively, but I feel in a much better position heading into this season having gone through it. Last time my goal was just to make the team and to represent the United States, and I hadn't really thought much further past that. And this year we've really planned everything down to the last detail. I've set my goals very specifically and I've set my training plan very specifically so that I know exactly what to do throughout the season and hopefully post-nationals going into Sochi, I'll be prepared for that properly."
That's certainly the thought for these five individual American figure skaters, each trying to stamp his or her name on the Sochi Games up against some stiff competition in several returning Olympic medalists and world champions from Canada, South Korea, Japan and hometown Russia. With all of the domestic distractions ideally left behind once the team heads overseas to compete, the attention will, with any luck, not be on the past, but focused on the present.
"When I travel to Sochi," the recent U.S. champion Gold confidently said in September, "the competition will be the first thing on my mind and enjoying the moment. But also just doing my job, which is to represent the United States and just put out two solid performances, and really enjoy the moment."