SAN JOSE, CALIF (USA TODAY) - Mirai Nagasu. Ashley Wagner. Bradie Tennell. Karen Chen. Polina Edmunds. Mariah Bell.
Elite U.S. athletes all, their names are not nearly as famous as those of their iconic predecessors: Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Kristi Yamaguchi, Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski, Sarah Hughes.
Will they ever be? There’s almost no chance of that.
The axis of power in women’s figure skating has left the United States and moved east to Russia and Asia.
But for this week, at the U.S. national figure skating championships, and for the next two months, through the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, those half dozen young U.S. women will be vying to be crowned America’s next great female skating star, even if their fame lasts only until February turns into March.
It’s quite likely that the names of the three American women who will compete in Pyeongchang next month will come from the first paragraph above.
They are such an interesting mix: Nagasu and Wagner, the two Olympic veterans at 24 and 26 respectively, not just hanging on but hoping to continue to thrive in a teenagers’ world; and the others, all in their late teens or early 20s, either on the rise or already hoping to stage a comeback so early in life.
One name is missing, the most famous of this generation of Americans: 22-year-old Gracie Gold.
The two-time national champion and 2014 Olympic team bronze medalist announced in the fall that she was in treatment for an eating disorder, anxiety and depression.
Sadly, she withdrew from Olympic consideration after missing the entire fall skating season, but her story is a cautionary tale that might prove more important than any triple jump landed here this week.
Nagasu and Wagner represented the United States on the same junior world team “eons ago,” Wagner said, and both began their Olympic level careers at the same U.S. nationals, in 2008, which Nagasu won, while Wagner finished third.
Nagasu came in a surprising fourth at the 2010 Winter Olympics, which Wagner just missed, while Wagner finished seventh at the 2014 Winter Olympics (and won a team bronze medal) after she was chosen for Sochi ahead of Nagasu in a controversial but ultimately correct decision.
“She and I really understand what it’s like to be sitting at home during the Olympics, and what it’s like to be on top,” Wagner said of Nagasu. “She and I sticking around this long is pretty cool.”
While Wagner, the 2016 world silver medalist, struggles with jumps that are sometimes flagged for being under-rotated, she also has been remarkably consistent in her 10 national championships, finishing lower than fourth only once while winning three times.
Nagasu is a sentimental favorite here this week, with plans to try the difficult triple axel in both her short and long programs, but her career has been plagued by disappointing inconsistency.
Since finishing third at the 2014 nationals, she has placed 10th, fourth and fourth.
Even this season, she has been unreliable, finishing fourth and 9th in her Grand Prix events.
Wagner, who readily admits that she has “not had a good season at all,” finished third in one Grand Prix event and withdrew in the midst of her long program at the other due to an ankle infection.
Leading the charge of the next generation of American women is the 19-year-old Tennell, who came in third at Skate America in November with the highest international score of any U.S. woman this season.
Chen, 18, won nationals last year and then finished fourth at the world championships, a performance that ensured the United States would have three slots at the Olympics.
But she has struggled this season, proving just how difficult sustaining greatness can be from one year to the next.
If staying on top for one year as a teenager in this sport is hard, try four years. Edmunds, 19, a 2014 Olympian, is living proof that it’s almost impossible to do.
She has battled injuries and is trying again, an ingenue turned into a wily veteran.
Meanwhile, Bell, 21, showed a flash of brilliance last year in making the world championships, but has underperformed this season, at least so far.
As the women’s event begins Wednesday with the short program, the role of U.S. women’s skating champion in an Olympic year remains one of the most coveted in all of sports.
It’s a title that belongs to the ages, to the Flemings and Hamills and Kwans.
It will also belong to one strong American athlete, followed by her two Olympic teammates, by the end of this week, whether you remember her name or not.
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