Expectations Going In: The 20-year-old Great Neck, New York native is best known for being a last-minute replacement for Michelle Kwan at the 2006 Olympics, where Hughes would finish the competition in 7th place. The following year, Hughes followed up that career breakthrough with silver medals attained at both the U.S. Championships and the Four Continents Championships. However, Hughes's skating began to fizzle out thereafter, and she wound up withdrawing from the 2008 and 2009 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Hughes later announced that she would take the year off from attending Harvard to focus on her efforts of making a second Olympic team. While a loss at the North Atlantic Regionals was not part of her plan, Hughes was invited to compete at Skate America when Sasha Cohen withdrew. Hughes's short program was a relative disaster, but she improved her standing in the free skate by four placements to finish 7th overall.
Pros: Hughes is one of only four women scheduled to compete in Spokane who has the experience of competing at a U.S. Championships in an Olympic year, and she is one of only two women entering this event with Olympic experience. The 2006 Olympian is consistently capable of taking off from her lutz and flip jumps from the correct edge, something very few of the other U.S. ladies can say. Hughes demonstrates commendable flexibility in her spins and spirals, and she is currently showing a more mature style in her long program to the soundtrack from the motion picture Gone with the Wind. Hughes also skates with a creditable amount of speed, and 1998 Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski commented that Hughes's work with a ballet coach has helped the 2007 U.S. silver medalist create more defined movement in her choreography.
Cons: Hughes's jump rotation speed is slow when compared to her adversaries, and such a weakness causes her jumps to be under rotated frequently. Even while at the athletic peak of her career (2006-2007), Hughes was prone to under rotating jumps, and her more mature body certainly doesn't help her in this endeavor. Trouble with rotating triples continued at Skate America, where her triple flip in the short and her triple salchow in the long were only credited as doubles. Hughes's reputation has certainly waned in the last couple of years, as evidenced by her relatively low PCS marks at Skate America: a 23.76 in her short and a 46.64 in her long. While her programs have potential, they appear disjointed at the moment, and Hughes is going to have to find ways to connect dots of her program far better than what she is doing now to raise her PCS. An example of this can be found in her long program, where Hughes does a spiral in the middle of the program. The spiral would be a very nice transition if done shortly before a jump, but Hughes takes so much time to pick up speed and prepare the jump that the overall effect of the movement is lost. Hughes is also known to not have the most steady landing positions: commentators frequently state comments like "She fought for the jump" or "She hangs on," but seldom do they ever say that she outright nails a jump.
Outlook: The Hughes family was blessed with the miracles of Sarah winning Olympic gold and Emily getting to go to the Olympics after Michelle Kwan withdrew, but it will take an even greater miracle than those two for Emily Hughes to make a second Olympic team. Even when adding back all of the marks Hughes lost for negative GOEs, downgrades, and popped/doubled jumps at Skate America, Hughes would have only scored around a 56.06 for her short and a 101.39 for her long. Her short program score would not put her at too much of a disadvantage, but her long program, even with a clean skate, would be easy to surpass for many. One thing that is in Hughes's favor, however, is experience. While Hughes is one to be sluggish during Grand Prixs, she typically is one to deliver at least decent performances at major events later in the season. Hughes has time to improve since Skate America, and she will probably be in better shape for nationals. With little reputation to bank on, however, Hughes will need to make the Olympic team, or any team, the hard way.
Expectations Going In: Liang appeared to have all the promise one could ask for when she competed at her first U.S. Figure Skating Championships on the senior level in 2001, all the while being just 12 years old. Unfortunately, the 21-year-old Tarzana, Los Angeles native has never fulfilled that early promise, aside from a few career highlights (pewter medalist at the 2007 U.S. Championships, 10th place at 2008 World Championships). Liang's career appears to be spiraling downward more than ever, as she placed 14th at this event last year and was 10th out of 11 skaters at this year's Cup of China. Thus, not much is expected of what could be Liang's final competition.
Pros: The 2006 Four Continents bronze medalist moves extremely quickly while doing anything: jumps, spins, stroking, et al. She achieves decent height on her triples, and she has some of the better spins among the current crop of American ladies skaters. Liang is also one of the most experienced U.S. ladies skaters who are currently competing: she has competed in 11 national championships and nine of them on the senior level. Liang has improved her extension over the years and is one of the few to repeat the lutz and flip jumps - the two hardest jumps besides the axel - twice in her long program. Liang has finished in the top five four times at the U.S. Championships.
Cons: A 62.93 is considered a very good score for a short program. Although, with the 76+ totals that Yu-Na Kim often receives, the score would be unlikely to top a leader board going into the free skate of a World Championship or Olympic Games. However, Bebe Liang received a 62.93 for her free skate at the Japan Open back in October for a humiliating free skate that contained zero clean triples. Poor, desolate performances from Liang last year dropped her to 14th place, and her 10th place finish from Cup of China was even scarier, as she had the potential to skate much worse than she did. Liang received edge calls on each of the three triple lutzes she attempted at Cup of China, and she also had three triple jumps downgraded in her long program there. Artistically, Liang's transitions are not optimal and her choreography in her current programs is fairly elementary when stacked up against the top U.S. women.
Outlook: It is more likely that pigs will start flying than it is for Liang to make the 2010 Olympic team. Liang had a decent chance of making the 2006 Olympic team, but she blew it when she succumbed to the pressure in the long program by falling twice. She made the most out of her time at what will likely be her only World Championship in 2008, where she cracked the top ten with two decent skates. Since then, however, Liang's skating has gone south and it is unlikely that she will continue beyond this season. Liang is no longer age-eligible to compete at the World Junior Championships, and the Four Continents Championships are scheduled for the week immediately following the ladies competition at Nationals, thus making it questionable as to whether there will be any American representatives in the ladies event there. With all of that said, Liang's last competition may very well be this one, and with the way she has been skating lately, she won't go out with a bang.
Expectations Going In: The 16-year-old Montebello, California native came out of nowhere to beat heavy favorite Caroline Zhang for the junior title at the 2007 U.S. Championships. Nagasu appeared to be the next great U.S. skater when she surprisingly won the 2008 U.S. Championships as a senior, becoming the second youngest U.S. senior ladies champion in history (Tara Lipinski being the youngest). Unfortunately, a massive growth spurt and an ankle injury severely hindered Nagasu's efforts in the 2008/2009 season, and she has since switched coaches from Charlene Wong to Frank Carroll. Thus far this season, Nagasu has neither helped nor hurt her Olympic bid, but she is still considered a very viable contender for a ticket to the Games.
Pros: Nagasu has superb extension and shows that off to its fullest in her exemplary spins and spirals. Nagasu's growth spurt has enabled her to become much faster across the ice, and her long, lean frame presents viewers with a very attractive body line to watch. Nagasu won the short program at this season's Cup of China with a score of 62.20, a short program total which has only been surpassed by four women in ISU competition this season. Also, the two-time Junior Worlds medalist is prone to peaking at Nationals, as she won the junior title in 2007 and senior title in 2008. Also, even though Nagasu did not medal in 2009, her overall showing there was far superior to her performances at her two Grand Prix events earlier that season. Nagasu showed to be a formidable competitor last year, when she arrived to her free skate in tears and admirably finished her skate without major error. Nagasu has always been marked favorably by the U.S. judges: in 2008, she broke 70 points for her short program and placed above Caroline Zhang's clean long program with a free skate that contained a fall and an under rotated jump.
Cons: Nagasu has always had a huge tendency to flutz, but at Skate Canada, she was given an edge call for her flip in the short and both of her lutzes in the long. Nagasu had four triples and one double jump downgraded during her free skate at Cup of China, and she also received downgrades on two double jumps at Skate Canada. Nagasu's PCS marks went down from Cup of China to Skate Canada for both programs, and while she rotated all of her triples during her long at the latter event, her expression and overall artistry suffered immensely. Nagasu has taken the salchow jump out of her repertoire, and she only attempted five triples in her long at Skate Canada. Two of those triples were lutzes, which are often taken off from the wrong edge or under rotated, and another was a flip jump, an element which was downgraded twice at last year's Nationals. Several of Nagasu's comments that she made at the U.S. Olympic Media Summit about her not being very pretty or very smart, while honest, indicate that Nagasu's confidence level is precarious at best.
Outlook: Nagasu's fall international season has lagged behind those of Czisny, Flatt, and Wagner; however, her scoring potential and ability to peak at nationals make her chances to make the Olympic team very realistic. What should decide Nagasu's fate will be her ability to rotate jumps. Even though the execution judges are no longer required to give a downgraded jump a -GOE, under rotated jumps are still very costly under the new scoring system and will tarnish any advantage Nagasu would have on the second mark. Luckily for Nagasu, Czisny and Wagner have frequently had jumps downgraded as well, and Nagasu receiving full credit for her planned five triples at Skate Canada is certainly a step in the right direction. Nagasu has scored well domestically, and she will be difficult to unseat for an Olympic berth if she goes close to clean in Spokane. However, a meager difference in the rotation of a jump can put a lifelong dream on hold.
Expectations Going In: Wagner burst out onto the scene as a senior level skater in the 2007/2008 season when she took home a bronze medal at the U.S. Championships. Battling injury, pressure, and the unenviable task of following Miki Ando (who withdrew during the beginning of her skate due to an injury), Wagner only finished 16th at her only World Championship thus far. The 2008 U.S. bronze medalist decided to change coaches from Shirley Hughes to Priscilla Hill in 2008, and while Wagner didn't make the world team last year, her coaching switch appears to be paying off with two medals on the Grand Prix this season and a 4th place finish at the Grand Prix Final. Wagner appears to be the favorite to take the second Olympic ticket (behind Rachael Flatt), but with Czisny and Nagasu nipping at her heels, Wagner cannot attain an Olympic berth without two creditable performances.
Pros: The change in Wagner's artistry since moving to Priscilla Hill is night and day, and the two-time World Junior bronze medalist has two strong, dramatic programs this season to showcase that improvement: a short to the soundtrack of Once Upon a Time in America, and a long to the music of "Polovtsian Dances." Wagner is one of the most complete U.S. ladies skaters, boasting strong jumps, spins, speed, and musicality. Wagner was the only U.S. lady to qualify to the Grand Prix Final, and a 4th place finish there should help her out politically heading into Nationals. Wagner won the long program at last year's U.S. Championships with only five clean triples, and she placed ahead of Rachael Flatt and Caroline Zhang, who both landed six triples. Wagner was the only U.S. lady to medal in both of her Grand Prix events this season, and she set personal bests at the Rostelecom Cup for both her long program and her overall segment total. Wagner stated on her Facebook account that she is "plugging away at those triple-triples," and Priscilla Hill insisted in a New York Times article that Wagner was far from her optimum form during the Grand Prix season.
Cons: Wagner has yet to kick her flutz habit to the curb, and out of six attempts at that jump during this season's Grand Prix she received one "!" and five "e" edge-calls (and the "e" edge-calls are the more severe of the two). She is also a skater to often under rotate jumps, and no jump is immune from being downgraded for Wagner. The current U.S. pewter medalist has had not one, but two, double axels downgraded this season, and she also has received two downgrades on her second triple flip in the long program. Wagner puts a triple lutz late in the long program, which she often receives a -2 GOE for, even if otherwise done cleanly, instead of doing an easier triple toe that would give her around the same point value. The same logic could also be applied to her short program, where the substitution of a loop or salchow for her lutz would likely augment her score. Also, Wagner's plans to do a triple-triple backfired last year, and she has not competed one cleanly since 2008 Nationals. Wagner's PCS went down in the long program from NHK Trophy to the Grand Prix Final, with her GPF free skate being far superior to her one executed at NHK.
Outlook: For better or for worse, Wagner certainly has confidence, going as far as to imply that she could surprise and win the Olympic Games in a New York Times article. Wagner has easily been the second best skater in the long program this year, but Czisny should have an advantage with her short program if Wagner's flutz remains intact. It is worth mentioning that the U.S. technical specialists tend to be more lax with edge calls and have been so to Wagner's lutzes in the past: in 2008, Wagner received no edge call for any of her three lutzes, and she only received an "!" for one of them in 2009. However, the U.S. technical specialists were not shy at Nationals last year when it came to downgrading jumps, which is something that could make an attempt at a triple-triple unwise. Scott Hamilton did mention during his commentary at the Grand Prix Final that Wagner should increase her difficulty, but cleanliness might be the best route with top rivals such as Czisny and Nagasu bound to make errors somewhere. Wagner has been neither brilliant nor dreadful this season, but she has been reasonably solid across three competitions. Adding that with a 4th place finish at the Grand Prix Final should ensure Wagner of the ability to control her own destiny at the U.S. Championships, as she has been marked well at this event in the past with less credentials entering in.
Expectations Going In: Like Nagasu, Caroline Zhang was considered a budding talent whilst on the junior ranks, as evidenced by her taking home the gold medal at the 2007 World Junior Championships. Her first experience on the senior Grand Prix went well, and she took 4th place at the 2007 Grand Prix Final with an overall score that has not since been matched by a U.S. lady in ISU competition. Zhang was too young to qualify to the senior world team in 2008, but she became eligible in 2009 and just missed a spot on the team. Many felt that she should have been on the world team with her impressive performances at both the 2009 Four Continents Championships and the 2009 World Team Trophy. Since then, however, Zhang has not indicated that she will skate well enough in Spokane to be at all deserving of an Olympic berth.
Pros: Arguably the most flexible skater in the world, Zhang is renowned for her six o'clock spirals and her stunning "pearl" and Bielmann spin positions, as she frequently receives high levels and GOE through the roof for her spins and spiral sequences. Zhang delivered near clean long programs at both the 2008 and the 2009 U.S. Championships and is one to perform near her optimum in the later part of the season. Zhang's new short program to "Zigeunerweisen" showcases a fire and intensity that has been missing from several of her previous programs. Zhang's personal best in her long program, a 116.80, has only been surpassed by one of the ladies set to compete in Spokane, Sasha Cohen. Zhang also has a full arsenal of triples besides the axel and will likely be one of the only women attempting triple-triple combinations in Spokane.
Cons: Zhang didn't perform terribly at her opening event of the season, Trophee Eric Bompard, but her PCS marks went down considerably from when she had last competed at the World Team Trophy. Zhang would go on to miss the podium at that event and finish 4th, but the worst was yet to come. At Skate Canada, Zhang had the worst long program of her career as a senior level skater, scoring only 77.88 for a performance of which contained two falls and an invalid jumping pass. Zhang's poor speed, transitions, and overall artistry were reflected brashly in the judges' marks, with one judge going as far as to give Zhang a 2.5 for transitions. Zhang has not had much political favor domestically, and her fall international showing will certainly not aid her in that regard. Zhang landed six triples in her 2008 and 2009 Nationals free skates, but both times she only finished 4th in the long program phase of the event. Zhang has said to be incapable of breaking out of her comfort zone, and it certainly appears to be that way with so many of her weaknesses including her flutz, mule kick, poor stroking, lack of transitions, and molasses speed showing little or no improvement from when she was on the junior level.
Outlook: Zhang's season appears to have been doomed from the start, with two coaching changes and a partial tear of her ACL occurring over the summer. Zhang had a pitiful outing at Skate Canada, but she has shown a fighting spirit several times in the past and should improve for nationals; however, even a dramatic improvement will mean nothing for Zhang's nearly non-existent Olympic chances. The U.S. judges have never scored Zhang beneficially and certainly won't start doing so with her poor Grand Prix season. Zhang will still be much in the running to earn a 4th ticket to what is perhaps a painfully familiar event for her: the World Junior Championships. Zhang's poor technique on just about every jump (except the salchow, which interestingly she never did throughout much of 2007-2008) and her poor speed going into those jumps will hold Zhang back forever unless if major changes are to be in order. Zhang did grow taller last year, yet she interestingly dealt with all of her technical issues well (for the most part). Unfortunately, it appears as though an injury and a further growth spurt have expired Zhang's success with her many technique foibles. Zhang is incredibly talented and can make a splash come 2014, if she does something she has never done before: break out of her comfort zone.
Gold: Rachael Flatt- Flatt should start winning respect from the U.S. judges after her excellent showing at Skate America. If Cohen is not to come back and Czisny remains a headcase - both of which appear likely - Flatt will be the United States' only hope for a ladies medal in Vancouver.
Silver: Ashley Wagner- If the U.S. judges are lax with edge calls, Wagner will be in very good stead to make her first Olympic team. Still, the two-time Junior World bronze medalist would be wise to arrange her jump layouts in such a way that she wouldn't have a try the jump in either program. Triple-triple combinations are great if they're landed (or even just rotated), but they could be unnecessary, or detrimental, to Wagner's Olympic bid.
Bronze: Alissa Czisny- Quite an irony this would be if Czisny were to finish 3rd after basically losing the third spot for the United States in Los Angeles. The judges would look terrible if they blatantly prop up Czisny as they did last year, but she still should be marked favorably with a decent fall international season behind her. However, Czisny cannot go clean in both programs to save her life, and an Olympic ticket on the line won't help her out at all in that endeavor.
4th: Mirai Nagasu- She should perform at least decently here considering her past nationals showings, but downgrades always plague her and could cost her dearly at this event. Nagasu's PCS have been fine domestically, but have not been so fine internationally this season. Thus, it will be interesting to see if her lower PCS marks (especially comparative to Czisny's) at Skate Canada will show up at Nationals.
5th: Caroline Zhang- Has no where to go but up after her performance at Skate Canada, and she has delivered good skates at the past two U.S. Championships. All of that won't mean anything, however, because the judges won't be on her side.
6th: Christina Gao- She has good jumps, very good jumps, and not much else. Still, Brian Orser and his assistants are absolutely heading Gao in the right direction, and she is in the position to have a very admirable showing at these Championships.
7th: Emily Hughes- She had an adequate outing at Skate America on short notice and should display relative improvement for this competition. Under rotated jumps will be a major factor in her placement, but Hughes is experienced enough to get decent PCS and avoid cleaning the ice here.
8th: Alexe Gilles- She is a fairly elegant skater but her jumps are quite often not there for her. She had a fair showing last year and will hopefully take that experience to perform well again.
9th: Bebe Liang- She generally manages somewhat decent showings at nationals, but top ten will probably be the highest realistic goal for her after her poor finish last year and her rough outings in the fall.
WD: Sasha Cohen- Her injury situation was dire enough to pull her out of an event with a weak field and little at stake at Skate America. Recent videos from the show "Improv Ice" show Cohen struggling with one of the easiest jumps, the salchow. Perhaps we may be lucky enough and see Cohen show up in Spokane to do a short program and then mysteriously bow out prior to the long.