Saturday, February 28, 2009

2009 World Figure Skating Championships-Ladies Preview Part II

Laura Lepisto (Finland)

Expectations Going In: Lepisto has made steady improvement from her debut performance as a senior at 2007 Skate Canada, where she finished in 7th place via a tumultuous free skate after winning the short program. Having had a decent, albeit unremarkable Grand Prix season, she lost the Finnish national title this year. Shortly thereafter, she surprisingly took the European title, the biggest accolade of her career thus far. Despite being the European champion, she is still inferior to her competitors in many aspects of her skating and thus a podium finish is not expected of her at these world championships.

Pros: An elegant, polished skater, Lepisto finished 8th at last year's world championships, after being down in 21st after the short program. Lepisto has no outlying weakness to her skating, and tends to pick up high GOEs for her triple toe-triple toe combination and her triple loops. The judges have been warming up to her throughout the season, as evidenced by her actually scoring higher in the short program at NHK with a triple-double than at Cup of China where she did a triple-triple. Her program component marks during her long program at Europeans, totaling up to 58.56, will prove to be competitive against the other top ladies skaters, and reputation wise entering the championship as the current European champion will not hurt Lepisto in the least.

Cons: Lepisto is currently avoiding putting the triple flip into her bag of tricks, and her triple lutz is spotty at best, having landed only one in her entire career. Lepisto's jump layout for her long program has been puzzling, considering that she does not do a triple-triple combination, a jumping pass she can do very well. Instead, Laura attempts her lutz, a jump she often pops, and the salchow twice, a jump that is also inconsistent for her (although at 2009 Europeans she replaced the second one with a double axel). In Lepisto's case, no distinct weaknesses come with no distinct strengths. Her spins, spirals, and presentation are nothing for one to break their heart over and Lepisto's frequency of popping jumps has the potential to lower her score significantly. Also not to forget, Lepisto has failed to complete an error-free long program at a noteworthy competition.

Outlook: Carolina Kostner should still hold the title of top European lady, given her past results, and also considering that Lepisto's win in Helsinki didn't come without dispute. The existence of the new scoring system is definitely to Laura's liking, as she has the potential to still gain marks and place highly without a lutz or a flip, something that could not be done easily under 6.0. The presence of Lepisto in L.A. may not reach the podium, but she could play a pivotal role in disintegrating USA's wish to get three spots for next year's Olympics. As is true for many other skaters, skating a clean short will be an imperative aid to Lepisto, as she could sneak into the final group and possibly be scored more leniently in the long. Lepisto's marks at Europeans, particularly in the long, were unquestionably inflated. As far as potential placements are concerned, a top 10 finish shouldn't be an issue for the 20-year-old Finnish skater, but cracking the top five, and getting three Olympic spots, will require more than just a little help from her fellow adversaries.

Sarah Meier (Switzerland)

Expectations Going In: After a rough start to her season last year, she came into her own with excellent performances at the European Championships, winning the free skate and the silver medal, and finishing a creditable 6th at worlds. However, after an undesirable outing at Cup of China early on this season she withdrew from Cup of Russia and Europeans due to a defect in her labrum, as well as a back injury. As of now, Meier is planning on competing at worlds and is postponing surgery until after the competition has terminated, but don't be surprised if she is to withdraw or perform far below her peak.

Pros: An idyllic, lyrical skater, Meier has fine musicality and a blissful triple lutz. Blossoming at a late stage of her career, the 24-year-old Swiss champion will be one of the most experienced ladies competing in Los Angeles, appearing at her 8th world championship. Meier has placed top 7 at the last three worlds and has been the recipient of the last two European silver medals, becoming the first Swiss skater since Denise Bielmann to win a European figure skating medal. Sarah's personal best totals of 60.87 (SP), 113.00 (FS), and 171.28 (total) have the potential to place her as high as top five, largely due to her elegant and sophisticated style. It is also worth mentioning that, while Sarah performed poorly at the beginning of the 2007/2008 season, she improved immensely by the time Europeans and worlds rolled around.

Cons: Battling back and shoulder injuries, it is hardly a certainty whether Meier will make the flight to Los Angeles at all. After placing 3rd at the Finlandia Trophy, a visibly out-of-shape Meier placed a disappointing 6th at Cup of China. Having since withdrawn from Cup of Russia, Swiss Nationals, and Europeans, it is unlikely that Sarah will have enough recovery time to place well, especially considering that she will need surgery as soon as this season has completed. As far as the aspects of her skating are concerned, Meier makes an uncharacteristic, but critical, error in turning to the outside edge on her triple flip. At Cup of China, the flip still received a full "e" wrong-edge deduction. She has been criticized in the past for her edge quality, which Sandra Bezic reiterated in her comment at the 2006 Olympics, "Her edges are jittery. She skates on top of the ice, not into the ice." Her spirals are fairly mediocre, and doesn't follow along with the stereotype that all Swiss skaters are phenomenal spinners.

Outlook: The former Grand Prix Final bronze medalist has come to a turning point in her career, and unfortunately the path ahead does not look bright. It has been reported that the chances for Meier to return after surgery are nothing to celebrate over, and considering that she has already been to an Olympics, she may just retire in the near future. The chances regarding whether Meier returns to her ultimate form may be dictated by how badly she wants to go to a second Olympics, and considering that she has little shot for a medal her going would probably be for the pride and joy of competing and representing Switzerland once more. Losing Meier from the competitive world of skating would be a real shame, as she is one of the most peaceful skaters to observe and has sound technique on several of her elements. Meier's injuries spell good news for Czisny and Flatt, who could have one less skater to worry about when it comes to getting three spots for next year's Olympics.

Cynthia Phaneuf (Canada)

Expectations Going In: Phaneuf won the 2004 Canadian title, but suffered from a knee injury and motivational problems during the Olympic season of 2005/2006. Beginning her return to competition in 2007, she has made slow, yet consistent improvement to her overall skating. Many would have been surprised at her making the world team just a few months ago, but now Phaneuf and top-ranked Canadian Joannie Rochette have a decent shot at getting three Olympic shots, and arguably an even better chance than the United States does.

Pros: While jumps have played an obstacle into much of Phaneuf's career, her artistry has not. A dramatic short to "Nocturne" and a sensual long to the movie soundtrack of "Mission Cleopatra," have further advanced the artistic horizons of this elegant competitor in order to set herself apart from her fellow rivals. Phaneuf is capable of landing all of the triples with the exception of the axel, and does attempt seven triples in her long program. Phaneuf achieved personal bests in all phases of the competition at her most recent competition, the Four Continents Championships. Scores of 60.98 for her short that didn't contain a triple-triple, and a 108.43 for a free skate that contained only five triples, prove that Phaneuf is in fine shape to contribute to Canada's hopes of getting three Olympic berths.

Cons: The world championship has hardly been a kind event to Cynthia, having only made the championship once in 2005 and finishing a distant 20th. Phaneuf only has a 53% hit record for her triple jumps this season, and has received "e" wrong-edge deductions for her flip jump. In fact, Phaneuf has not landed a clean triple flip jump for the entirety of this year, and her lutz continues to be a troublesome jump for her, having only hit six out of 12 attempts this season. The current Canadian silver medalist's spins and spirals leave something to be desired, particularly in terms of clarity and extension of her positions.

Outlook: It will be by all means difficult for Phaneuf to finish in the top five in California, especially considering that she would be thrilled just to hit five triples in her long, never mind her planned seven. Phaneuf's duties at her 2nd world championship will largely begin and end with helping Joannie Rochette secure three spots for next year's Olympics. An order of business for Phaneuf, or in this case the lack thereof, will be to continue doing her triple toe as the solo jump in her short as opposed to her consistently missed triple flip. With that said, it is amazing how the passage of time can put forward an entirely different scenario. During the Grand Prix, many didn't feel Phaneuf's chances of making the world team were overly secure, and that if she were to go it would just be for the experience of it. Now, it appears as though her improvement makes Canada's chances of getting three spots more likely than that of the United States, something that would've been considered improbable at the beginning of the season. If Rochette finishes 3rd, Phaneuf would need a 10th place in order for such a task to be deemed successful. By the looks of the Four Continents Championships, this shouldn't be a problem, although peaking at the world championship proves to be a tricky business even for the most seasoned of competitors.

Susanna Poykio (Finland)

Expectations Going In: Poykio is a five-time Finnish national champion, although the last two years she has been relegated to bronze at that competition. Poykio's bronze medal at the 2009 European Figure Skating Championships will enable her to compete at worlds, after failing to make the team last year. Having had a consistent, albeit unspectacular, season thus far, Susanna will be very satisfied to finish in the top 10 in Los Angeles. Her and Lepisto's chances for getting three Olympic spots for Finland are low, although not entirely implausible.

Pros: Once referred to as the "Finnish Michelle Kwan," Poykio has a mature, sophisticated presentation to her skating and is capable of beautifully executing the triple jumps. Poykio has all of the triple jumps in her arsenal (besides the axel), and is rewarded for her ability fo fully-rotate her jumps and for taking off of her flip and lutz from the correct edge. Also worth mentioning is that Susanna had a very creditable PCS score of 54.88 during her long program at the recent Europeans. The 27-year-old is a veteran of competition and of the world championship, where she will compete for the 6th time with little pressure on her to skate well.

Cons: Poykio abandoned the triple loop at the recent Europeans, instead replacing it with a second triple flip attempt of which she doubled. Poykio attempts six triple jumps in her long program, instead of the usual seven that the top female skaters usually perform. In addition, she repeats her triple toe loop jump, the easiest triple, twice in her long program and is frequently inconsistent with her lutz jump. Many believe that Europeans marks this season were inflated, and thus Poykio would be lucky to be receiving even 50 for her PCS marks in the long (she received 46.08 for PCS during her long at Skate America with a superior program technically than she did at Euros). What separates Susanna from the top tier of ladies skaters is predominately her non-jump elements, such as spins and spirals. She often receives level 2s and even level 1s with less-than-stellar GOEs for weak and undefined positions on those elements especially.

Outlook: Poykio shouldn't be touching the medal podium in Los Angeles, but her experience and relative consistency could dig herself a spot in the top 10. The former Finnish champion will likely thrilled just to be competing in Los Angeles, as her spot was originally in jeopardy when Kiira Korpi came back to win the Finnish national title earlier this year. Nothing less than greatness would be required on her part to help achieve a three-person Olympic team, which would be a first in Finnish skating history. The problem is such that Poykio has really never achieved this supposed greatness during any stage of her career, as her total personal best is only a 163.98, recorded at 2005 Worlds. Susanna will hope that her consistently rotated jumps will help out her final placement, but the other technical aspects of skating, and occasional doubling or singling of jumps, look to further stunt the potential that this skater has yet to realize as her career will soon be coming to a close.

Joannie Rochette (Canada)

Expectations Going In: It has been a rarity in ladies skating for the top North American skater to not come from the United States, but such will be the case when Joannie Rochette takes to the ice in Los Angeles as possibly the only skater capable of splitting Yu-Na Kim and Mao Asada for a silver medal or on a perfect night, defeat them both. Rochette has had a terrific season thus far, but has shown vulnerability, particularly at this year's Grand Prix Final where she missed the podium.

Pros: Peaking at an unusually late stage of her career, the 23-year-old Rochette is comparable to what Scott Hamilton touted about Kristi Yamaguchi during her career, "Her greatest strength is her lack of weaknesses." Rochette has good height on her triple jumps, which enables her to rotate them consistently and land them with considerable speed and flow coming out. The five-time Canadian champion has made considerable strides in her artistry over the past several seasons, and shows that off to the fullest extent with an elegant short to "Summertime" and an opulent long to "Concierto de Aranjuez." Joannie has beaten Mao Asada twice this season, and is capable of breaking 60 in PCS marks during the long program. Practically assured to win her fifth Canadian title this year, she opted out of resting on her laurels and ended up winning by an astounding 33.93 points.

Cons: Rochette has vehemently hoped to be getting her triple-triple combination (flip+toe) consistent, but never mind consistency; she has not once been credited with landing the element in competition. Originally planning a triple flip+triple toe, she has made a bold, if not questionable, move to switch her combo to a triple lutz+triple toe. Her short has given her a plethora of other issues this season as well, doubling both ends of her jump combination and popping her lutz at the Grand Prix Final, and singling her axel and falling on her lutz at Canadian Nationals. Rochette has seven triples in her long program, but repeats one of the easier ones, the salchow, twice. Her triple toe+half loop+triple salchow sequence was penalized heavily during the long at the Four Continents Championships, when the value for the triple salchow was thrown out altogether after the technical panel declared that there were two many turns in between the two jumps.

Outlook: In many cases less is more, and Joannie would be wise to stick with a triple lutz+double toe for her short in L.A., just like she did at the Four Continents. Rochette scored a 66.90 for her short at that competition, and that is the type of score that will put a definitive roadblock in other skater's medal plans. The triple-triple has proven to be far too risky for Rochette, and if she is still fixated on including it, a safer triple toe+triple toe will always be an option. Rochette's free skate has been superb all season long, so the major issue of concern will be the short program. Having not medalled at a world championship, this competition has often been unkind to Rochette, with her frequently not meeting expectations from herself and her country. A win here would put enormous pressure on Rochette to do well in Vancouver, even more so than there already is. Thus, a silver or bronze would likely be the best-case scenario for Joannie heading into Vancouver, and she is by all means capable of achieving a podium finish at these worlds. However, Rochette seems to be eyeing the top prize, commenting "I want everything to be perfect at worlds." In reality, perfection at this competition may be the last thing that she wants, and going for broke may not be the best idea either.

Fumie Suguri (Japan)

Expectations Going In: Suguri will be competing at her 8th world championship, although this will be her first worlds since 2006. Suguri was not favored to make the world team this year, as the usual trio of Mao Asada, Miki Ando, and Yukari Nakano were expected to represent Japan for the third consecuitive year. However, a poor free skate by Nakano and a superb one from Suguri at Japanese Nationals switched their roles and Suguri will be heading back to the championship of which she has won three medals, including one silver (2006) and two bronze (2002 and 2003). Suguri is at best considered an outside medal contender for these championships.

Pros: The five-time Japanese champion has not placed lower than 7th at a world championship of which she has competed in since 2001. She has placed top five at two Olympic Games (2002 and 2006) and is known for peaking at major competitions late in the season. Suguri's assets that she puts forward are her strong, airy jumps, musicality, and mature expression. Suguri was able to beat Mao Asada in the long program at this year's Japanese Nationals, despite landing only five triples and having both lutzes marked with an "!" penalty. Suguri successfully reinstated her triple salchow at the Four Continents Championships, and lately Fumie has been relatively immune from under rotating jumps. Suguri is also a crafty worker of the code of points, as she often maximizes her potential TES score by achieving level 3s and 4s for her non-jump elements.

Cons: Suguri is a chronic flutzer and will frequently receive "!" and even "e" wrong-edge deductions for her lutz. The 28-year-old veteran failed to make the Grand Prix Final this season, and finished a slightly disappointing 6th at the recent Four Continents Championships, falling out of two jumps in the long program. Suguri is hardly a polished skater, often hitting awkward and poorly extended positions in her spins and spirals. An example of where these issues were brought to light was when, at the 2003 Worlds, the usually sedate Peggy Fleming bluntly criticized Fumie for her "terrible layback." Because of this, Fumie often cannot draw upon extremely high component marks or high GOEs for her non-jump elements.

Outlook: If nothing else, fellow rivals would love to emulate Suguri's ability to improve when the pressure intensifies. Seldom skating poorly at a world championship, one can be sure that Suguri is determined to take full advantage of the opportunity to compete at what could be her final worlds. While Fumie's return to the world championship may not conclude with a medal, if history is anything to go by she should put a damper in USA's hopes for three spots, simply because of her experience, intelligent working of the code of points, and knack for peaking at the right time. With that said, a top 10 placement should not be an issue, a top five placement is realistic, and a medal will require perfection. Interestingly, Suguri actually has the most senior world championship medals (three) of any of the ladies who are scheduled to skate at the Staples Center this March.


Gold: Yu-Na Kim (South Korea)-The last two years the title could have been hers for the taking, but injury prevented that from happening. Now, healthy, fit, and confident, Kim wants the third time to be the charm in L.A. Considering how successful her season has been thus far, it should be.

Silver: Mao Asada (Japan)-Asada indicated after the Four Continents Championships that her motivation was not intact and that she would reinvigorate her efforts in preparation for the world championships. Asada has delivered gutsy skates the last two years at worlds, but it remains to be seen whether a potential loss to Kim in L.A. will prompt the Japanese Skating Federation to think over their decision to allow Tatiana Tarasova to coach the reigning champion of this event.

Bronze: Joannie Rochette (Canada)-Rochette has been strong in the free skate all year long, but it will take excellence in the short program as well to be able to win her first world championship medal. Nerves have been the Canadian champion's opponent at past world championships, and has been working relentlessly on correcting this foible.

4th: Carolina Kostner (Italy)- Kostner has proven to be capable of peaking late in the season, and with two world medals to her credit she should still be a strong threat in Los Angeles, despite her losing the European title back in January. Although a beautiful skater, Kostner's inconsistency may once again require the judges to escalate her marks in order for a medal to be put around the Italian's neck, as many felt happened last year.

5th: Miki Ando (Japan)- There is no telling when Ando will skate brilliantly or dreadfully, but as aforementioned she skates her best when she is the distinct underdog. As proven earlier in the season, rotating her jumps will be Miki's greatest concern heading into these world championships, as is staying healthy.

6th: Fumie Suguri (Japan)- Suguri has many of the ingredients for a good finish, including solid jumps, high levels on her spins, and mature presentation. Having been absent from the championship since 2006, Suguri always seems to be able to sneak up on her fellow rivals and quietly finish past them. Although she has had a great season thus far, Fumie's somewhat lower scoring potential will take her name outside of the hat when it comes to the discussion of potential podium placements.

7th: Rachael Flatt (United States)- Flatt is consistent, a good worker of the code of points, and is known for peaking at major competitions. Her decision to return her old long program is a wise one, but her component scores are still likely to suffer because of her unremarkable posture and choreography. Although a great jumper, her triple-triple has been an inconsistent element for her this year, and will need it for a good finish at these world championships.

8th: Alissa Czisny (United States)- First off, Czisny has avoided a complete meltdown this season, so hopefully such a scenario won't happen in Los Angeles. However, the consistency rate of Czisny's jumps remains worrisome, as is her seasons best being at the recent Four Continents Championships where she placed 9th. Many figure skating fans would be unanimous in agreement that Caroline Zhang is a more deserving skater to go to the world championships, and she would have a better shot at helping assure three Olympic spots than Czisny. However, Czisny's ability to score well in L.A. when she performs cleanly, still makes the United States' chances for getting those three berths not entirely preposterous.

9th: Laura Lepisto (Finland)- Lepisto was once a skater who would be notorious for skating beautifully one program and self-destructing in the other. However, since the opening of this season she has become far more consistent, although errors such as popping her lutz routinely creep up on her. It remains to be seen if the European title instilled more confidence and attack from a skater who, while polished, is often times unexciting and mundane.

10th: Cynthia Phaneuf (Canada)- Phaneuf performed superbly at the Four Continents Championships, but it remains to be seen whether that was just a one-off or whether it is just another stepping tone to her plans of skating like never before at the world championships. As none of her other competitions this season were especially brilliant, it is unknown how noticeable of an impact Phaneuf will have on the competition at worlds.

Next Post: 2009 World Figure Skating Championships-Mens Preview

That is all.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

2009 World Figure Skating Championships-Ladies Preview

The 2009 World Figure Skating Championships will truly be a world competition, with female skaters from Japan, South Korea, Canada, United States, Finland, and Italy expected to contend for the top ranks at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, beginning on March 27th. The former powers of women's figure skating, the United States and Russia, have since demolished. But where popularity and success of the sport has declined there, in Asia it has done nothing but blossom. Prior to 2005, South Korea and figure skating would never be placed in the same sentence. Four years later, Yu-Na Kim has become one of the most recognizable athletes in Korean history, and with that, figure skating has become a colossally popular sport in that nation. Japan began to seriously follow the sport when Midori Ito emerged as a world champion in 1989, going on to win Olympic silver in 1992. After a drought of talent, the prospects for Japanese figure skating looked benign when several veterans and newcomers started accumulating success around 2002. However, it wasn't until a young, dainty girl by the name of Mao Asada started attempting triple axels at the age of 13, when Japan knew it had found its next ice queen. Heading into these World Championships, the two skaters will continue their electrifying rivalry to determine who is the best ladies figure skater in the world. Kim, expressive and dramatic, and Asada, light and airy, will be the contenders to beat at these World Championships and at the Olympic Games next February.

However, just because ladies skating has been dominated by the "Asian Invasion" doesn't mean that it ends there. Joannie Rochette of Canada will have something to say about a 1-2 finish for Kim and Asada, as she has beat Asada twice this season. Carolina Kostner of Italy split the two skaters at last year's World Championships, but that time it was Kim who had to settle for 3rd while battling a nagging back injury. The story lines fail to just end at who will receive gold, silver, and bronze, however. Three countries will be battling each other to secure a high enough finish (a combined placement of 13 from the two skaters of that country) to get three Olympic berths in 2010. Finland and Canada could realistically do without a third berth, but the United States would love more than anything to snatch it. With there being an immensely deep pool of talented yet inconsistent U.S. ladies skaters, and also adding in the potential comebacks of Sasha Cohen or Michelle Kwan, a third Olympic spot would be most desirable for the U.S. The reasoning is such that because all of the U.S. girls are roughly on the same plane in terms of their medal prospects, it doesn't hurt to send one more girl who may just have a Paul Wylie-esque Olympics.

With all of that said, one can never forget how truly prestigious the World Figure Skating Championships are. Skaters should be thrilled that they have even made it to Worlds, as several world-class skaters will not be able to make such a statement. Notable competitors absent from the world championship include Kiira Korpi, Kimmie Meissner, Mirai Nagasu, Yukari Nakano, Akiko Suzuki, Ashley Wagner, and Caroline Zhang. The cold, harsh reality is such that even if some of these aforementioned names will be in Vancouver, it will come at the expense of another skater who is equally as deserving.

Skaters Featured In Post

Miki Ando (Japan)
Mao Asada (Japan)
Alissa Czisny (USA)
Rachael Flatt (USA)
Yu-Na Kim (South Korea)
Carolina Kostner (Italy)

Laura Lepisto (Finland)
Sarah Meier (Switzerland)
Cynthia Phaneuf (Canada)
Susanna Poykio (Finland)
Joannie Rochette (Canada)
Fumie Suguri (Japan)

Red indicates commentary of skater is featured in part 1 of post
Blue indicates commentary of skater is featured in part 2 of post

Miki Ando (Japan)

Expectations Coming In: Miki Ando has had an unsteady season thus far, finishing 6th out of six skaters at the Grand Prix Final and 3rd at the Japanese Nationals, barely finishing high enough to make the world team. She is a former world champion from 2007, but has seldom skated to that level since.

Pros: At her peak, Miki Ando has the capability to shove past her competitors with remarkable skates. The three best overall competitions of Miki's career: 2006 Skate America, 2007 World Championships, and the 2008 Japanese Nationals, all came when Miki wasn't favored to win. Considered an underdog in L.A., Miki could place highly with triple-triple combinations, an improved long program to the music of Camille Saint-Seans' "Organ Symphony," and a possible quadruple salchow jump. Ando will be one of the most experienced ladies competing in Los Angeles, and over the years has made noticeable improvement in her non-jump elements, notably her spins and footwork. Miki's total average score this season, a 165.85, is the 4th highest among the women competing in L.A. and is higher than that of last year's silver medalist, Carolina Kostner.

Cons: Ando has only been credited with landing one triple-triple combination among five attempts this season. Over a span of four competitions, Ando had a total of 15 jumps downgraded, and her possibly attempting a quadruple salchow in Los Angeles could backfire if the jump gets downgraded and if the element has a faulty landing. Ando was heavily criticized for her lack of artistry during CBC's coverage of the Grand Prix Final, with the normally benevolent Tracy Wilson commenting during her final step sequence, "This is the first time it's feeling to me [in the program] that she's starting to feel the music." While her PCS marks hover in the 55-56 range in the long program, they are not to the level of the 60+ PCS marks that go to the long programs of Mao Asada, Yu-Na Kim, and Joannie Rochette. The validity of Miki's ticket to L.A. has been a hot debate amongst skating fans, as many feel that Akiko Suzuki was under marked at Japanese Nationals and thus should have finished ahead of Ando's sub par performance.

Outlook: Ando's decision to include the quad should come on the basis of how her other elements, specifically jumps, are looking. Ando's scoring sheets have been littered with "<"s, although Miki is a skater who only needs to rotate her jumps ever so slightly more to get full credit, as opposed to a true chronic under rotater like Mirai Nagasu. If she still feels that she is at risk for receiving downgrades and lower levels (she received two level 2s during her free at GPF), than Ando might as well try the quad, as she would have nothing to lose to try such a daunting skill (other than injury). While much is up in the air regarding Ando's potential placement, there is one thing that is for certain. Miki does her best when she is the underdog. Making the world team as the third-ranked Japanese skater, and doing so by only .11 of a point, makes her exactly that.

Mao Asada (Japan)

Expectations Coming In: Asada is the reigning world champion, winning the title after suffering a horrific fall on a triple axel attempt and going on to skate brilliantly throughout the rest of the program. She has had an up-and-down season, winning the Grand Prix Final but only placing 3rd at the Four Continents Championships. With her recent loss in Vancouver, she will not be the favorite to win in Los Angeles.

Pros: The only woman at the World Championships who will even attempt a triple axel, Mao takes it a step further, attempting two in her long program. She landed both triple axels cleanly at the Grand Prix Final, going on to defeat Yu-Na Kim in her home country. Asada is known to be an exceptionally complete skater, with tremendous jumps, spins, footwork, and artistry. Asada is capable of landing triple-triple combinations in both programs, and no longer receives a deduction for flutzing. Asada also looks toward high GOEs for her jump combinations, where she often adds a Tano-style arm to her double jumps.

Cons: Asada performed poorly (by her standards) at the recent Four Continents Championships, and was rumored to be suffering a knee injury. Asada has not been credited with one triple-triple combination since last year's worlds, and out of seven triple axel attempts this season only four were ratified. Turning away from the technical standpoint of Asada's skating, her long program to the music of Aram Khachaturian's "Masquerade" has been criticized as bleak and desolate. Unfortunately, the program highlights Asada's weakness in not being able to relate to the audience as much as Yu-Na Kim, and her PCS marks were lower than Kim at the Grand Prix Final in both programs. In terms of averages this season, Asada's total score is 180.947, a full 7.86 points behind Kim's total average and only .975 ahead of Rochette's.

Outlook: If past history means anything, Asada will look improved from her Four Continents showing. Earlier this season, Asada improved dramatically between her season opener at Trophee Eric Bombard to the NHK Trophy, which was only two weeks later. Mao has performed very well at the last two world championships, and just to show those who wish to write her off, Asada still scored a very respectable 109.47 at this season's Trophee Eric Bombard, after what was undoubtedly one of the weakest skates in her career. However, Kim's victory in Vancouver does mean that Asada will have an uphill battle to defend her title. In that sense, a little reverse psychology could save the day. Midori Ito was overwhelmed by the monstrosity of pressure from the Japanese media at the 1992 Olympics, and she was entering the games as the 1989 World Champion and having finished off the podium at the 1991 Worlds. Considering how insufferable it could be for a two-time and reigning world champion heading into the Olympics, it may actually be a blessing in disguise if Asada is not crowned champion of the world in 2009.

Alissa Czisny (USA)

Expectations Going In: Czisny has showcased creditable improvement this year, with that rise meeting with a U.S. National title in January. However, her win in Cleveland was considered extremely debatable, mainly due to her substantially higher PCS marks in the long program. Going on to Four Continents Championships, two relatively shaky skates put her in 9th place overall, and will need to do much better to help assure the United States of three Olympic spots.

Pros: Take away the jumps, and Czisny is one of the finest skaters in the world. Armed with legs that extend to tomorrow and a quiet, serene elegance, Alissa has worked with Brian Boitano and his former coach, Linda Leaver, to improve her jumping technique and her ability to focus in competition. Alissa's inordinate spins, posture, and musicality have made it clear that if nothing else, the judges do still reward her with decent marks even if she skates less than lovely. This is evidenced by the fact that despite a flawed long program at the Four Continents Championships, she scored higher PCS marks than Cynthia Phaneuf, Caroline Zhang, Rachael Flatt, and Akiko Suzuki in that portion of the competition.

Cons: Many are fearful that Alissa's past inconsistencies will continue in California, where arguably the biggest test of her career will be placed. Czisny does not have a triple salchow in her jumping repertoire, and occasionally receives an "!" edge penalty on her triple flip. Czisny only has a 54% hit record of her triple jumps this season ( statistic doesn't include the summer B-competitions that she attended), and this is only with Alissa attempting five triples in the long program, when most of the other top ladies are doing six or seven. Czisny's clean short at the U.S. Nationals was the first time she had done a faultless short in a major competition since 2005 Skate Canada. Czisny's total score at the Four Continents Championships was her international seasons best score, where she still finished a disappointing 9th.

Outlook: Many think that the ship has already sailed regarding the United States' hope for three ladies spots in Vancouver next year, and the reason why is because Caroline Zhang wasn't on board. Czisny's worth as national champion, in addition to her spot on the world team, weakened when Zhang outscored Czisny by 11.41 points at 4CCs, putting Zhang's seasons best at 5th while putting Czisny's at 14th. Despite all of her past troubles and the controversy, Czisny will be going to Los Angeles to compete at her 2nd world championship, and if she does precisely what she didn't do in Tokyo at her first world championship (where she finished in 15th place) she should do just fine. First off, a clean short is a must. If nothing else, a clean short should get her into the final group for the free skate, which would help boost her PCS marks in the long. As far as the long program is concerned, Czisny has hinted that she will upgrade the content of her long program. The safest and most intelligent way to do this would probably be to replace one of her double axels with a triple loop. The loop has been her steadiest jump this season, and considering that even her double axels aren't particularly solid, she would have little to lose by making such a change. While Czisny's potential placement is still very much unclear, the judges have reiterated their appreciation for her elegant line and will reward her if she is to skate well.

Rachael Flatt (USA)

Expectations Going In: Flatt has lost the two U.S. titles by meager margins, but looking at the overall results this season she is going to worlds as the top American. Rachael is generally known to peak when it is most important, and she is a very strong jumper. However, her artistry, spins and speed take her out of immediate medal contention.

Pros: Flatt has triple-triple combinations planned in both programs, and has done seven clean triples in her long program more than once. Her choice to revert back to last year's long program to Mathieu's "Romantic Rhapsody" looks to be a good one in terms of boosting that critical second mark. Flatt peaked late in the season last year, arguably delivering the best skates of her career to win the world junior title ahead of Caroline Zhang and Mirai Nagasu. With many of her rivals known to fall apart in one way or another when the pressure is on, Flatt's consistency could dodge challenges from her fellow competitors to ensure a strong placement, as is her intelligent working of the code of points.

Cons: Flatt is heavily reliant on the triple jumps to get her a competitive score, but unfortunately Rachael has only managed one successful triple-triple combination this entire season. Flatt doesn't lengthen through her spine as she skates, thus creating the image of pore posture. Among other things, Flatt has been widely criticized for her generic programs, lack of speed, and unpolished positions in her spins and spirals. At the recent Four Continents Championships, Flatt's PCS marks in the long reflected these aforementioned areas that are in need of improvement, only scoring 51.04, the 9th highest PCS total of the free skate. Rachael has also received several "!" and even "e" wrong-edge deductions for her lutz.

Overall: Flatt's overall finish in Los Angeles could have quite a bit to do with how skaters like Ando, Lepisto, Phaneuf, and Suguri perform. Unfortunately, Rachel's scoring potential is not of top caliber because she lacks an overall signature to her skating, and she is not exempt to downgrades and wrong-edge deductions. While a medal may not be forthcoming, a high placement around 5th-7th could be there for her if she skates at her apex in California, and if other competitors open the door Rachael will be sure to walk through. Flatt is in many ways the polar opposite of Czisny, as Rachael is consistent yet unpolished whereas the reverse is true for Alissa. The two are capable of placing a combined 13th to get three Olympic spots, and Flatt will look to make as little mistakes as possible to take the pressure off of Alissa to complete the task at hand.

Yu-Na Kim (South Korea)

Expectations Going In: Kim was a favorite to win the last two world championships, but a back injury impeded her abilities, thus forcing her to settle for bronze in both cases. An astoundingly popular athlete in her home country, Kim hopes that the third time will be the charm in Los Angeles. Despite a loss at home during the Grand Prix Final, her victory at the Four Continents Championships against a deep field cements her status as favorite at worlds.

Pros: Blessed with immaculate security on her jumps, improved spins and spirals and a true sense of musicality in her programs, the two-time Grand Prix Final Champion has the highest total average score this season, a 188.805. While Asada may have the advantage in quantity, Kim will make that up with the quality of her elements, with +1 and +2 GOEs frequently flocking to her triple-triple combinations, triple lutzes, and double axels. Her PCS marks in the long program have not been below 60 for the entirety of this season, and she is less prone to getting downgrades and wrong-edge deductions than many of her other top competitors. Kim holds the two highest scores in the short program (72.24 and 71.95) and the highest free skate mark (133.70) in the history of the current judging system.

Cons: Despite winning the 2009 Four Continents title with room to spare, Kim did have notable mistakes in the long program, falling and under rotating her triple loop and also under rotating her triple lutz. The triple loop has been Kim's chief weakness throughout her career, and has not landed the jump in competition since November 2007. Kim's back has been a source of injury for her, and despite being a strong favorite for the title the last two years, she was injured and suffered errors in the long (2007) and the short (2008), that prevented her from winning. Yu-Na is not the most technically polished skater out there, which is evident in many of her spin and spiral positions.

Outlook: The first task that is in order for Kim to win her first world title is to say farewell to the triple loop. Practise reports indicate that Kim can do the jump, and she has landed it twice in competition, but it has become an enormous psychological obstacle for her. Luckily, switching a double axel should save the day, as she has done at many past championships. Her double axel in place of the triple loop in the long at this season's Grand Prix Final received a +1.80 GOE, thus receiving a total of 5.30 points for the element. The most Kim has ever received for a triple loop is 5.50 points, so realistically the risk isn't worth the reward. Where Kim will look to blast through her competition is in the short program, where a score of 70 is possible. However, leading after the short is also a double-edged sword, as proven with her faulty long programs after being in the lead at the 2007 Worlds and 2008 Grand Prix Final. A few minor errors aside, Kim looks healthy and fit this season and Brian Orser will look to peak her at just the right time so that the 2009 world title will be hers for the taking.

Carolina Kostner (Italy)

Expectations Going In: Kostner has two world medals, a bronze from 2005 and a silver from 2008. Kostner is expected to be sturdy medal threat in L.A., although the top spot on the podium will continue to be elusive for the Italian. Kostner has not had the best season, as evidenced by her losing the European title to Laura Lepisto. Thus, a world medal of any color will be considered an accomplishment.

Pros: With speed that puts Apollo Anton Ohno to shame, Kostner is a fine jumper and is known for her excpetional spiral and step sequences. Kostner frequently scores above 110 points in the free because she is usually immune to under rotating jumps, and receiving wrong-edge penalties on either her lutz or flip. Having graduated from being a newcomer, Kostner is now an experienced veteran and will be entering her 7th world championship in March. Having not had such an excellent season, she won't have as much pressure as skaters like Asada, Kim, and Rochette. Kostner took advantage of a poor short program from Joannie Rochette at the Grand Prix Final to win the bronze medal, despite Carolina having a fairly rough long program herself.

Cons: Kostner has poor technique on her double axel jump, and often breaks flow and telegraphs the entrances to many of her jumping passes. Carolina is not known to be the best spinner, and on that note, she recently lost the European title on the basis that she wasn't given any credit for a combination spin in the long program (she apparently did too many revolutions to count the spin as a sit spin combination, and instead it was counted as an extra combination spin). Kostner has struggled with skating cleanly at the world championships, let alone in both programs. Many consider her silver medal from last year's worlds to be a ludicrous result, and it is rumored that the ISU took a lot of criticism for the result as well.

Outlook: If it is to be assumed that Kim and Asada are to finish 1-2 (which is by no means a guarantee), Joannie Rochette should prove to be Kostner's toughest rival for the bronze medal. Per the results of the season, Rochette looks to have a distinct advantage over Kostner, as Rochette has a 179.973 seasons average as opposed to Kostner's 164.228. Kostner will come into L.A. as somewhat of an outside medal threat, but she should continue to be the only European lady capable of medaling at the world championship, something that could help her out politically. Nerves have impeded her progress on the world stage, which is a real shame. Her 2007 worlds short program showed to everyone that in the event where she is to relax and just skate, the result is sublime.

Part 2 to come shortly.

That is all.