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Priming for PyeongChang: 12 figure skaters to watch this Olympic season

Here’s to the ones that dream, foolish as they may seem.

Those lyrics from “Audition (The Fools who Dream)” from the La La Land soundtrack embody women’s figure skating — especially when talking Olympic dreams.

Due simply to sheer numbers, female singles skaters face the longest odds among the sport’s four disciplines when it comes to ascending the ranks, never mind reaching the Olympic pinnacle when the spotlight’s glare is unrelenting and the ice unforgiving.

Three-time U.S. national champion Ashley Wagner epitomizes the tenacity and determination these women need to turn dreams to reality. Now 26, she has recognized, yet ignores, the perceived absurdity of her figure skating dreams.

The music from La La Land speaks to her. It’s her story.

Wagner chose the soundtrack as the backdrop for her long program this season, believing her interpretation can lift her onto the Olympic Winter Games podium in South Korea come February.

As the 2018 Olympic season heats up this month and next, we will see and hear much more about Wagner and her fellow dreamers.

Pundits and fans alike will scrutinize early season performances and begin to speculate: Who among the class of 2018 could ultimately succeed in living their dream in PyeongChang?

The women to watch

During the four-year Olympic cycle, a seesaw battle often develops with emerging co-favorites for Olympic gold — Katarina Witt and Debi Thomas in 1988, Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski in 1998, Kwan and Irina Slutskaya in 2002, Yuna Kim and Mao Asada in 2010 and 2014.

This quadrennial is different.

Over the last two years, Russian teenager Evgenia Medvedeva has cemented her status as the unrivaled favorite for gold among a raft of similarly talented yet less consistent competitors.

She has been riding a winning streak for the ages thanks to her technical prowess and uncanny ability to deliver perfection on demand. Medvedeva has won every event she entered since December 2015, including two World Championship titles.

Still, recent Olympic history tells us that the best bets do not always pay off.

Witness American Sarah Hughes’ upset over the favourites Kwan and Slutskaya in 2002, Japanese Shizuka Arakawa’s 2006 win over Slutskaya, and the controversial 2014 victory of unheralded Russian Adelina Sotnikova over Korean superstar Kim in Sochi.*

That’s what makes the Games’ glamour sport so exciting for fans, and the Olympic season so nerve-wracking for the women expected to contend for the podium at Gangneung Ice Arena in February.

*Sotnikova will not defend her title in Korea and Kim has retired.

The Favorite

150k✨ thank you❤️

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Evgenia Medvedeva, Russia

Age: 17

Credentials: World Champion in 2016 and ’17 (the first woman to repeat since Kwan in 2001.) World Junior Champion in 2015. Two-time European and Grand Prix Final champion. Earned the highest total, short and long program scores ever recorded.

Previous Olympic experience: none

Of note: An ebullient yet focused competitor with steely nerves and uncanny consistency. Superior emotive qualities. Performs many jumps with one or both arms over her head (to earn more points). A fan of Japanese anime, especially Sailor Moon and Yuri on Ice.

Follow: https://www.instagram.com/jmedvedevaj/

The Contenders

Back to work #roadtopyeongchang2018

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Kaetlyn Osmond, Canada

Age: 21

Credentials: World Championship silver in 2017. Three national titles.

Previous Olympic experience: 13th in 2014

Of note: An engaging, natural performer with huge jumps and speed. Series of injuries derailed her momentum after promising international debut in 2012-13. Missed entire 2014-15 season with a broken leg. Her Edith Piaf short program is widely heralded as tops among all 2017 offerings. She has a tattoo of Olympic rings on her ankle, which is now slightly marred by a surgical scar.

Follow: https://twitter.com/kaetlyn_23

Fetch me my dragons. The #winterolympics are coming.

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Ashley Wagner, USA

Age: 26

Credentials: World Championship silver in 2016. Qualified four times for Grand Prix Final. Three national titles.

Previous Olympic experience: 7th in 2014

Of Note: An outspoken, unapologetic, tenacious athlete. Expressive, mature performer. She landed on a snake instead of ladder at last season’s World championships, finishing seventh with lackluster skate. She was featured in ESPN’s 2017 Body Issue, revealing a tattoo of Olympic rings on her ribcage.

Follow: https://twitter.com/ashwagner2010

Carolina Kostner, Italy

Age: 30

Credentials: Olympic bronze in 2014. World champion in 2012. Five additional world medals. Five European titles.

Previous Olympic experience:  3rd in 2014, 16th in 2010, 9th in 2006.

Of note:  A sentimental favorite beloved by fans. She uses long body lines to her advantage and has blinding speed across the ice. She was banned from competition in 2015 for helping her former boyfriend, an Olympic racewalker, evade mandatory drug testing.  She resumed competing in fall 2016. and must increase her technical difficulty this season to keep pace. 

Follow: https://twitter.com/mskostner

Satoko Miyahara, Japan

Age: 19

Credentials: World Championship silver in 2015. Four Continents champion in 2016. Grand Prix Final silver (twice). Three national titles.

Previous Olympic experience: none

Of note:  She exudes confidence and determination.  Precise yet small jumps. Missed 2017 championship events due to stress fracture in hip as her fitness remains an ongoing concern after a foot injury sidelined her in late summer. She learned to skate in Texas, where she lived briefly as a child.

Gabrielle “Gabby” Daleman, Canada

Age: 19

Credentials: World Championships bronze in 2017. Four Continents silver in 2017. One national title.

Previous Olympic experience: 17th in 2014 (youngest athlete on Canadian team)

Of note: She has a fiery competitive spirit, with speed and power as her forte if kept in check. She underwent emergency surgery to remove abdominal cyst this summer.

Follow: https://twitter.com/gabby_daleman

The spoiler

#おっさん感

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Wakaba Higuchi, Japan

Age: 16

Credentials: World Junior Championship bronze in 2016 and 2015. Two national silvers.

Previous Olympic experience: none

Of note: Has shown flashes of brilliance. Textbook jumps. After underwhelming results at 2017 Championships, she recorded a total score at World Team Trophy that would have won bronze a month before at Worlds. If she builds momentum this season, she could be an Olympic upset in the making.

Follow: https://twitter.com/wakawakaskate?lang=en

The time-will-tell gang

Surprise 2017 U.S. champion Karen Chen and 2017 Four Continents winner Mai Mihara of Japan, ranked an impressive fourth and fifth, respectively, in their world championship debuts last spring. Both skaters, who celebrated 18th birthdays in August, have strong technical goods, but must up their performance maturity to challenge for the Olympic podium.

When American Gracie Gold, 22, and Russian Anna Pogorilaya, 19, are on top of their game, they land on the podium, but inconsistency has derailed their ambitions more than once. Each suffered heartbreaking competition meltdowns last season. For now, their Olympic contender status could be described as iffy, particularly for Gold, who announced in early September she would seek (unspecified) professional help and take some time off the ice. Pogorilaya needs solid, confidence-boosting performances early in the season to put her back in the Olympic medal conversation.

Russian Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, 20, was on a roll in 2015, winning figure skating’s trifecta — the Grand Prix, European and World titles. Since then, that winning form has eluded her. Tuktamysheva’s Olympic prospects hinge on a strong start this fall and re-mastery of her money jump — the triple Axel.

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