Ashley Wagner performs during the ladies' figure skating event during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 20, 2014. File Photo by Maya Vidon-White/UPI | License Photo
Sept. 18 (UPI) -- With the 2018 Winter Olympics coming up fast in Pyeongchang, South Korea, one of the most anticipated events is figure skating. While it doesn't get much attention outside the Olympics, the sport has an intense competitive season that has just begun.
With the first competitions of the challenger series taking place last week at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Utah and the Lombardia Trophy in Italy, many of the most anticipated Olympic programs have been revealed.
Here's who to watch and what to expect from the United States and its strongest competitors at the upcoming Winter Games.
Three men to watch
For 2018, the United States will have its fewest entries since 1924, with three women, three men and one pair. This leaves every top skater in the nation to battle it out for those few spots in their divisions, but for Team USA there's one name you have to know: Nathan Chen.
The only true shoo-in for the U.S. Olympic team is Nathan Chen, who took gold this year at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, where he won over current Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan. He is the current U.S. national champion and marked as one of skating's brightest rising stars. He's one of the major innovators in the sport, being the first skater to land five different quadruple jumps at the first event of his season last week at the U.S. Figure Skating Classic.
While he's been criticized for his presentation and lack of musicality, improvements are apparent in his new Olympic short program, "Nemesis." Without a lower presentation score holding back his monster of a technical record, it's likely that Chen could be unstoppable this year.
While the World Championships determine how many slots each country has for the Olympics, the United States will not be making official selections until Jan. 7, based on skaters' performances at U.S. Nationals and their success over past seasons. The Olympics begin Feb. 9.
For the men's division, the main contenders for the other two slots after Chen are Jason Brown, Adam Rippon and Vincent Zhou.
If you're a fan of Hamilton, you might be rooting for Brown, an experienced Olympian. While he often struggles to create a competitive jump composition, his presentation displays far more flexibility and focus on artistry, transitions and choreography than much of his competition. For this Olympic season, Brown's short program is set to the song, "Wait For It," from the hit musical Hamilton. For fans of artistry and energy over pure athleticism, Brown is the man.
Adam Rippon, another skater focused on unique presentation, has emerged as a fan favorite. Last season, he stood out from the competition by skating to a short program set to pop music in contrast to the classical pieces his competitors had chosen and a free skate set to a mix of classical music and "O" by Coldplay. He will be sticking with this presentation strategy in the Olympic season, skating to Rihanna for his short program and keeping his Coldplay routine for the free skate. The U.S. champion from 2016, he would likely be more of a guarantee if not for an unfortunate choke at last season's Grand Prix Finals.
The final primary contender is Vincent Zhou, a teenager fresh out of the junior circuit as the 2017 Junior World Champion with a silver medal at last season's U.S. Nationals. While he may not have as much of a following, or as much experience as Brown or Rippon, his points make up for it. With a personal best total score of 258.11, Rippon's is less than 10 points higher at 267.53 and Brown just nudges out ahead of them at 273.67.
Three women to watch
As for the women's division, we'll likely see Ashley Wagner back on Olympic ice, as one of the skaters who secured an Olympic slot for the United States with seventh place at Worlds. In the 2014 Sochi Olympics, she won a team bronze medal, but took silver at the 2016 Worlds and 2016 Skate America. Another common favorite from the women's division with creative routines, such as a short program set to a remix of "Sweet Dreams" by Eurythmics and a free skate set to "Exogenesis: Symphony Part 3" by alternative rock band Muse. She's far from the only skater whose strength lies in her musicality, but with unique artistic choices, she sets herself apart.
Another likely choice for Team USA is Karen Chen, who was the champion at the last U.S. Nationals and secured another Olympic slot for America by taking fourth at Worlds. Should she repeat the performance at this year's Nationals, her spot would likely be guaranteed. With the recent loss of names like Gracie Gold, who is taking time off from the sport to address her mental health, there is a little less competition for the slots in the ladies division. Karen Chen is a solid choice with or without competition, her personal best short program score (69.8) falling only about 10 points short of the world record score (80.85).
A strong contender for the third spot would be Mirai Nagasu, who took silver last weekend at the U.S. International Figure Skating classic after successfully landing a triple axel, a jump that has often plagued female skaters. She took silver over Karen Chen, who won bronze, with Marin Honda from Japan as the classic's champion in her senior debut.
In the pairs competition, the United States is not very competitive, but the slot is likely to go to Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim, who took 10th place at Worlds. While they're not frequent champions, the pair skate clean and with great chemistry. Whether they win or not, Scimeca and Knierim are a joy to watch.
Team USA's biggest competition will come from defending champion and world record holder Hanyu, who will be reviving his 2015 programs, "Chopin Ballade No 1" and "Seimi," to up their jump difficulty and Shoma Uno, who's started out his Olympic season with a gold medal at the Lombardia Trophy. Hanyu's season debut is Tuesday at the Autumn Classic in Montreal.
The unstoppable Evgenia Medvedeva from Russia is the women's skater to beat, holding all world records for scores in the women's division. She's a two-time champion at the World Championships, European Championships, the Grand Prix Finals and Russian Nationals. Her reputation for being untouchable, like Hanyu, is expected to continue.
But as the season ramps up, we'll see if Team USA stands to pose a challenge.