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Olympic Figure Skating

Women's figure skating preview: Breaking down the skaters

Photo: Al Tielemans/SI

Gracie Gold is in the prime of her career, but is it enough to bring home gold in a deep women's figure skating group?

The Olympic women's figure skating competition, scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday night in the Iceberg Skating Palace, shapes up as a dramatic showdown among a defending champion, a returning silver medalist and rising stars as young as 15. Vancouver gold medalist Yu-na Kim of South Korea-trying to become the first women's champ to repeat since Katarina Witt in 1988-will face a tougher field than she did four years ago. Here is a breakdown of the strengths and weaknesses of the top medal candidates.

Kim Yu-na, South Korea

Strengths:

• Precision. Down to the smallest of crossovers, each of Kim's movements is deliberate and exact, with no excess movement or choppiness.

• Control. Kim's effortless jumps and perfectly centered and positioned spins demonstrate the skater's connection to her body and total mental presence on the ice.

• Grace. Her lines, edges and arm movements are perhaps the most fluid of any skater in the competition.

Weaknesses:

• Various injuries. They may be the reason Kim hasn't been skating the technically flawless programs she was once known for. She fell in both her long and short programs at the Golden Spin last year in Zagreb. Injuries also prevented her from competing in more events throughout 2013. She is coming to Sochi with only two international events as preparation. Plus, a bad hip no longer allows the flexible skater to perform the point-garnering Biellman spin.

• The pressure of her final Olympics. "I might get distracted if I keep thinking about this being my last competition," she recently admitted.

Mao Asada, Japan

Strengths:

• The triple axel. Most women, even those who can land it, don't dare attempt it in Olympic competition. But Asada, who nailed three at the Vancouver Games, plans on performing the triple axel in Sochi as well.

• Hunger for redemption. Despite becoming the first woman to land three triple axels in competition, she still had to settle for second place in Vancouver. Over the past four years she has toiled to rework her jumps, in hopes of earning technical merit for more than just her mastery of the triple axel. And it shows.

• Footwork. Her sequences display spectacular choreography--or perhaps it's her clean execution that makes them so enjoyable to watch. It is also during her footwork sequences that Asada appears to connect with her music the most.

• Artistry. Having revamped her skating, eliminating bad habits and starting from scratch, Asada now possesses a level of grace comparable to that of Kim, her biggest rival since 2010. Throughout the season, Asada has shown more energy and emotion in her skating than Kim.

Weaknesses:

• The triple axel. Yes, the jump that made her famous and the main reason for her previous competitive success has been shaky this season. It was what caused her to fall during while skating the short program for Japan in the team event in Sochi. At the 2013 nationals she two-footed it and fell while attempting a double axel right after that . In December, she couldn't execute a clean landing at the Grand Prix Final free skate either. Without the triple axel, Asada may still make the podium but doesn't have any significant edge over this year's rivals.

Julia Lipnitskaia, Russia

Strengths:

• Fearlessness. Lipnitskaia's mother recently attested to her daughter's audacity, saying she was afraid Julia would "mouth off" to reporters, whom she finds invasive. Her ballsy attitude off the ice translates to character strength on the ice. Some believe that Lipnitskaia , at age 15, is simply too young to comprehend the magnitude of the event, which relieves her of the anxiety that many older skaters experience.

• Flexibility. Her Gumby-like positions are exceptional, even in a  sport like figure skating, where world-class competitors can do splits every which way. In her spirals and spins (like the I spin at the end of her free skate), Lipnitskaia doesn't simply bring her leg to her face; she extends it well over her head.

• Jump distance and speed of rotation. The strength and speed of her strokes and edges enable Lipnitskaia to jump out as well as up. The tiny skater covers several feet of ice between takeoff and landing, especially in her axels. That power also gives her landings the necessary speed for her to perform standout combination jumps, such as her solid double-axel-triple-two sequence.

• She (almost) always stays on her feet. She has had a fumble here and there, but overall throughout her career, Lipnitskaia has proven to go down in competition less frequently than most of the other frontrunners. In 2011-2012 Lipnitskaia went the entire season without falling during an event.

Weaknesses:

• Expression. Her short program is more interpretive of the music than her long, which is where skaters are supposed to showcase their artistry. For the free skate this season, Lipnitskaia chose music from the movie Schindler's List, which some feel is too mature for a skater her age. (The same theme was also used in 1995 by Katarina Witt, who at the time was twice Lipnitskaia's age.) Yes, judges do factor in a skaters' choice of music and how appropriate it is for their interpretation. The fact that Lipnitskaia almost never smiles on the ice doesn't mean she has the maturity to properly connect with such a heavy piece of music.

v• Puberty. During the 2011-2012 season, Lipnitskaia's skating-though still indisputably superb-actually appeared faster and more fluid than it has at times this year. The most likely reason is that she is at the age when her body is constantly changing. Last year she experienced a growth spurt that affected her balance and made her prone to injury. She worked to overcome that obstacle, without losing much momentum, but she is still growing and her form is vulnerable to change from one day to the next.

Carolina Kostner, Italy

Strengths:

• Passion. There is no denying that Kostner, unlike some of her poker-faced competitors, makes skating look fun. The 27-year old Olympic veteran still appears to genuinely be having a blast every time she takes the ice.

• Jumps. Her strong triples are a combination of a powerful takeoff,

textbook air position and a light landing.

• Longevity. She has spent more than a decade on the international senior level skating circuit and has had her share of podium finishes as well. When she doesn't hold back and executes all of her landings,  Kostner is both masterful and charming.

Weaknesses:

• Presentation. The choreography in her free skate is at times fitting

and original, but at certain points Kostner awkwardly tries to add "sexy" moves to the "Bolero de Ravel" number, which look out of place, even comical.

• Technical merit. Kostner's jumps and combinations do not have the same level of difficulty as those of other front-runners.

• Sloppiness. Kostner's style is probably the least precise of the bunch. She is not 100 percent in control of her body or her movements at all times. While this almost makes Kostner refreshing to watch, her free-spiritedness often looks sloppy.

Gracie Gold, U.S.

Strengths:

• Timing. She is in her prime-right this second. Kostner and Gold's U.S. teammate Ashley Wagner both peaked in 2012, their technical abilities having weakened since then. Lipnitskaia and Edmunds still lack the desired maturity and expression. Athletically, Gold is the strongest and most confident she has ever been, and the 18-year-old has a newfound sense of grace and artistic expression, the kind that only comes with age. Figure skating is about timing and for Gold, the stars have aligned over Sochi.

Weaknesses:

• Cookie-cutter jumper. There is no denying that Gold is very precise and consistent and has a solid triple-triple combination, but otherwise, her jumps do not stand out in height, speed, steadiness or  distance from those of her competitors.

• Ice coverage. The only aspect of her otherwise much-improved skating that may have slightly waned from what it was one year ago, when her speed was so impressive it practically defined her as a skater.

Adelina Sotnikova

Strengths:

• Experience. Sotnikova made her senior level debut at the Russian championships when she was only 12 years old. She took first place and was hailed as a prodigy. Now, at only 17, she is a four-time national champion and has come in second at the European championships for the past two years.

• She has beaten Lipnitskaia. Both Russians were relatively unknown outside Europe until the team event in Sochi, which made Lipnitskaia a household name overnight. But had Sotnikova skated in the team event, the world might have been equally impressed, if not more so--after all, Sotnikova is Russia's top skater according to the results of this year's national championships, while Lipnitskaia is second-best. If anyone is capable of beating the sudden gold-medal favorite, it's likely to be a woman who did so just two months ago.

• Presence. Sotnikova is by far the most feminine, flirtatious skater in the field. It is not the choreography that makes her skating so alluring, it is Sotnikova, who brings a signature coquettish charm to the choreography. Many skaters have tried to interpret Georges Bizet's "Habanera" from Carmen, but Sotnikova, who performs her short to the famous theme, makes you feel as though the music were written just for her.

• Athleticism. Even before she ran a leg of the Olympic torch relay, Sotnikova had a runner's strength to her legs (without the bulk seen in other muscular skaters like Surya Bonaly or fellow medal contender Ashley Wagner). Sotnikova's powerful gams give her jumps the trifecta of height, speed and distance, while maintaining a light touch on landings.

• Bonus points. Sotnikova plans to execute two double axels (one with a toe loop combination) a triple-flip-double toe-double-loop cascade and a triple Salchow combo, all in the second half of her long program.

Weaknesses:

• Posture. Sotnikova has been criticized for having a constant forward lean to her upper body while skating. Though for the most part her flawed posture isn't obvious or distracting, Sotnikova's forward tilt occasionally does become noticeable even to the untrained eye.

• Inconsistency in international competition. Last year Sotnikova placed ninth at worlds and in December she wound up fifth at the Grand Prix Final-both finishes an embarrassment for a four-time Russian champion.

Polina Edmunds, U.S.

Strengths:

• Composure. Edmunds is America's answer to Lipnitskaia, not only because she is same age, but also because of her steely nerves. The California native confidently took second place at this year's U.S. championships, which were not only her first nationals, but also her senior level debut.

• Number of technical elements: Edmunds's ambitious long program has a total of eight planned triple jumps, including two triple-triple combinations. Her triple Lutz-triple toe has great power, height and control.

Weaknesses:

• Also coming off a growth spurt. Edmunds hasn't quite grown into her gangly limbs, which at times appear to take away from her speed and offsets or perhaps create the illusion of a lack of elasticity in her skating.

• Scratching. Edmunds has a tendency of grinding her toe-pick into the ice before a jump as a way of slowing down, which shows hesitation. It also makes for slower landings.  At times, she comes down at almost a standstill, disrupting the flow of her program.

Ashley Wagner, U.S.

Strengths:

• Determination. Given Wagner's weaknesses and the superiority of her opponents in just about every category, including her in a list of possible medalists might seem odd. Some believe she shouldn't even be at the Olympics after finishing fourth at U.S. nationals. But the criticism and negativity could be her key to success. She wants to prove everyone wrong. Wagner came to Sochi with a hunger and drive that make it hard to rule her out.

• Jumps. With the exception of the bad day she had at nationals, Wagner, who rotates lefty, is a strong jumper. Aware of the fact that she needs to nail a triple-triple combination to keep up with a talented flock of rivals, Wagner has been working hard on her triple-flip-triple-toe, and landing it consistently in practice since her arrival in Sochi.  If she stays on her feet in both programs -- and, perhaps more important, her main opponents do not -- Wagner has a shot at the podium.

Weaknesses:

• Heaviness. In the past year Wagner has added a few pounds to her frame. The issue isn't whether her slight weight gain is or isn't attractive, but it may be the reason her skating no longer has the light, effortless feel it once did. In her performances this season, Wagner's knees have looked painfully strained during spins or spiral extensions. Her footwork also has appeared slower.

• Arms. Strong, deliberate arms can add much to a skater's lines and overall presence. The absence of arm awareness is one of the biggest presentation-killers in figure skating-and Wagner is constantly a victim of that. When she isn't using her arms to perform an element or choreography, she fails to maintain energy and positive tension in them, letting her arms hang limp, without purpose and seemingly in her way at times.