Out of One Event, Many Contenders

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

TURIN, Italy, Feb. 20 -- The lower bowl of the arena was jammed with fans, many lined up close to the glass, and the place came alive after Italian Carolina Kostner performed her long program. Cheers thundered, bullhorns bellowed and Italian flags shook.

Kostner bowed and acknowledged the adoring crowd.

And this was only Monday's morning practice session.

The ladies' Olympic figure skating competition kicks off Tuesday night at the Palavela, and it can't start soon enough, apparently, for fans, competitors and, perhaps, ratings-strapped NBC.

"I definitely feel like I'm ready," U.S. skater Emily Hughes said after her workout. "I can't wait until tomorrow. . . . I just can't wait for it to happen."

After three events in which Russian favorites seemed to follow scripts to gold medals, this feels much more like a free-for-all. Unlike in previous Winter Games, there has been no dominant pre-competition storyline, no Tonya-Nancy, no Michelle-Tara, no Michelle-Sasha. And, for the first time in recent Games, there is no clear-cut favorite -- thanks in large part to the absence of Japan's Mao Asada, a rising talent who at 15 did not meet the Winter Games age requirement.

"The Olympic Games is a really interesting competition," Russian Irina Slutskaya said during a pre-Olympics conference call. "You never know who can win there. . . . There are really strong Japanese girls, really strong American girls. There are like 10 people who can win the Olympic Games."

Combine that with a new judging system that puts performance above reputation and this ladies' competition is likely to be the most wide open in years. Slutskaya, who finished second to Asada at the December Grand Prix final, is widely considered the favorite given her success last fall and gold medal at the 2002 world championships, but she lacks the aura that Kwan carried in her prime.

"To me, a competition is not interesting if I don't have strong competitors," Slutskaya said.

She seems to have that here. The field is full of women with short or checkered résumés who could break out at any time. Slutskaya's biggest rival should be American Sasha Cohen, who finished second to her at the last world championships but did not compete at the Grand Prix final because she was injured early in the season.

Cohen, 21, who finished second to Kwan in four national championships, seems due for the major title that has long eluded her. Historically, however, she has killed her chances with big mistakes.

Though she fell hard attempting a triple flip in practice Monday, she looked relaxed, doing a run-through of her program without attempting any jumps to save her energy for Tuesday.

"I'm feeling really, really good, and confident and excited," she said Monday after training. "I've learned a lot since the last time around. Hopefully, I can take that experience and use it out there."

Cohen leads an inexperienced but promising team of youngsters, who are well aware that American teenagers have an excellent history in this event. Sixteen-year-old Kimmie Meissner of Bel Air, Md., is the youngest member of the U.S. team. Hughes, 17, has much in common with her big sister Sarah -- who was the same age when she won the 2002 Olympic gold -- except credentials. Sarah Hughes entered the Olympics with a world bronze medal on her résumé. Emily Hughes won the junior world bronze; she has never competed at a senior worlds.

U.S. women have frequently made the medal stand. The last time a U.S. woman did not win a medal was in the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck. Seven of the last 12 medals awarded in ladies' singles dating from 1992 have gone to Americans.

"At this moment, I don't feel any pressure," Cohen said. "I want to have a good time out there . . . I'm not putting pressure on myself to have to win or be perfect."

Slutskaya said she, too, isn't going for gold or bust. She said she realizes that Japan's Shizuke Arakawa, Miki Ando and Fumie Suguri could push her, as could the Americans, Kostner and fellow Russian veteran Elena Sokolova.

She said she's also earned a dose of perspective from problems off of the ice. Since finishing second in the last Olympics, she has battled a heart ailment and inflamed blood vessels. An only child, she has helped her mother cope with kidney disease. At 27, she said, she isn't old, just more mature and experienced.

"I feel so good right now," she said. "It doesn't matter how old you are, it's how professional you are."

Figure Skating Ladies' Short Program WRC-4, WBAL-11, 8-11:30 p.m.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company