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U.S. Nationals Coverage: Ladies Preview

This year, the U.S. gets only two ladies spots at the Olympics.  The last time that happened was in 1994, and many reporters were comparing yesterday's Sasha Cohen practice to '94, so at least people are excited.  Here's how I see it:

The Contenders

Sasha Cohen:  I was one of the people who was annoyed by all the calls for Cohen to make an Olympic comeback.  I truly don't think she's going to somehow "save" American ladies skating, but it's obvious that U.S. Figure Skating does not agree.  I was also skeptical when she missed two Grand Prix events this fall due to tendinitis.  That being said, I watched her practice run-through from yesterday and it just confirms one thing:  Sasha Cohen is the best skater at this competition.  She is not the best jumper, she is not the most consistent skater, but she is the best skater.  Her short program is a winner.  The good or bad news is that Sasha Cohen's Olympic bid depends completely on how many times she falls this weekend.  Numerous skaters have shown us this season that you can still medal despite falling, especially considering this crowd of skaters.  And I think Cohen may very well fall.  But I think she has at least a one fall leeway where she could still make the team regardless of how everyone else skates.  

Rachael Flatt:  If I had to put my money on one lady making the Olympic team, it would be Flatt.  She is just miss consistency and she has been hitting triple/triples, which is awesome and which we desperately need.  Her Sing Sing Sing short program is a great choice for her - she is not going to beat Sasha Cohen in grace so it will be nice for her to be doing somehing fun and crowd-pleasing to get the judges on her side that way.  Her shortcomings as a skater are a bit more obvious in her free skate (her posture, presence...at times even a lack of speed), but when she is hitting those jumps, any flaws can be forgotten.  I am also assuming Flatt earned a lot of brownie points by coming in fifth at worlds last season and by beating Yu-na Kim in the free skate at Skate America this season.  She's the only one who's done that this season.

Ashley Wagner:  I wavered on putting Wagner in this category when I saw Cohen was actually here.  Wagner has many technical flaws (she is unlikely to NOT get a wrong edge call on her lutzes and often flips as well, and she is often downgraded on her jumps).  But she has a great presence on the ice and she has the ability to pull great free skates out of nowhere, just when you are about to write her off (like how she won last season's free skate).  She is the only skater who qualified for the Grand Prix Final this season, and she came in a respectable fourth there.  But she cannot afford to be sloppy here if she wants to make the team.  She is also very confident - she does not have those deer in the headlight eyes and she truly believes she belongs here, which is more than I can say for some of the other skaters.

Alissa Czisny:  The reigning national champion.  Alissa Czisny is one of those skaters who is such a beautiful skater that you know she could contend with the best in the world if she only landed her jumps.  Well, she was given the benefit of the doubt at last year's national championships, winning despite a fall and only being credited for three triples in the free skate.  She did not make the most of that opportunity; she only finished 11th in the world championships and she shoulders much of the blame for the U.S. only getting two slots here.  So I think she'll have to be very clean here to have a shot at the podium and the team; with Cohen here, Czisny will not stand out as much and I assume the judges will be less likely to give her the benefit of the doubt.  But she has a very high short program score under her belt from Skate Canada. Unfortunately, I can't remember the last time Czisny was able to put two solid programs together.  Has she ever? 

Christina Gao:  I don't really think Gao is going to win this title, but she is one to watch out for for the future.  She is the reigning Junior Grand Prix bronze medalist and she apparently had a very impressive practice yesterday; I believe she was landing triple/triples cleanly, which is more than we can say for most of the other skaters on this list.  I'm excited to see her.

Emily Hughes:  I almost forgot to put her on this list!  She has Olympic experience, but she has not been in the last two national championships, as she has been plagued with injury.  She only managed a seventh place finish at her one Grand Prix this season, Skate America.  I just don't see her being clean enough or having high enough components scores to pull off a second Olympic trip, but I do like her Gone with the Wind free skate and I know not to completely count a Hughes out.

Bebe Liang:  I never know whether to include Liang on these lists.  I really don't see her going to the Olympics, but she is apparently skating quite well.  She's never medaled here, but she hovered in the top six up until last season when she landed in 14th, so maybe she'll be top six again.  She's got the big-name coach with Frank Carroll, and she has a top ten finish at worlds, which is more than I can say for Czisny, so might as well keep an eye on her too.

Mirai Nagasu:  The 2008 national champ, I had Nagasu originally in with the contenders, but then I thought too much about all of her interviews where she sounds like she has zero self-confidence, and I had to downgrade her.  But she can score very high when she pays attention to her jumping.  She has very bad habits of getting multiple downgrades on her jumps and when things aren't going well, she can look very young out there on the ice, which doesn't help her components.  But Nagasu won the short program at Cup of China, and if she builds up a short program lead here, she could be very dangerous.  She also does have some fight in her, as she showed at last year's nationals, when she entered the ice for her free skate in tears but then completed all her jumps.  When Nagasu is on, she can light up the ice in a way some of the other ladies cannot.  It just really depends on how things are going.  It seems like things can easily go from bad to worse for her.  But I won't be surprised if she makes that team - never count a national champion out!

Caroline Zhang:  She is a bit of an afterthought here, after all the hype surrounding her for years.  She is dealing with a back injury, says her coach.  She apparently looks just as miserable as she has looked over the last few years.  Zhang has a lot of technical problems with her jumps, and her program components have scored as low as 2.5 this season.  That is so incredibly low; the international judges are just not on team Zhang.  She will wow the crowd with her spirals and her signature pearl spin, but she will put them to sleep with how slowly she skates across the ice and her looks of...I do not want to be here.  Zhang is the reigning bronze medalist in this event, but it will take skating clean and everyone else erring for her to win this title.