Japan, Canada bring strong figure skating to Sochi
South Korea's Queen Yuna and America's ''Marlie'' should be the big headliners at the Winter Olympics. Otherwise, there's likely not much on the Russian ice for their countries.
Defending champion Yuna Kim and U.S. ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White - known as Marlie- are heavy favorites for the Sochi Games. They likely will be the only medalists for their nations, too.
Figure skating power lies in Japan and Canada these days, even though it's entirely possible neither nation will win gold in any of the standard events: men's and women's singles, pairs, ice dance.
However, the new team event is another Sochi story.
Canada is loaded in all four disciplines, from three-time men's world champion Patrick Chan to defending Olympic dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Japan is equally strong in the individual competitions, with 2010 women's silver medalist Mao Asada and a trio of potential men's contenders, including Vancouver Games bronze winner Daisuke Takahashi.
The Americans, led by two-time dance world champs Davis and White, the 2010 Olympic silver medalists, are talking bravely about grabbing team gold. But they'll need to overcome a weakness in pairs and two unpredictable men, Jeremy Abbott and Jason Brown, to get on the podium.
They can't wait to try.
''It's something we are really excited to be a part of,'' said White, who has partnered with Davis for 16 years and recently set a U.S. record with a sixth straight national ice dance crown. ''It is exciting for our sport. Really, figure skating is in the limelight during the Olympics, and for us to have an opportunity to share in even a bigger experience is amazing.
''Obviously, getting to compete twice at the Olympics is something we are not going to take for granted. We look forward to being very supportive teammates. We have a fantastic team, the U.S. does, and we are really in the medal hunt.''
Perhaps. But the Americans' best shot for gold clearly lies with the dancing feet of Davis and White.
And if they don't get it, look for Virtue and Moir - who train in the same Michigan rink with Davis and White - to stand atop the medals stand again. Ice dance appears to be a two-couple gig.
Like Virtue and Moir, Kim returns to defend her title. Unlike the Canadians, she took a long hiatus from competition following her mesmerizing performances in Vancouver.
Kim returned last season and won the world title with marks almost as good as in her record-setting Vancouver showing, winning by 20 points. She's trying to be only the third woman (Katarina Witt and Sonja Henie) to win successive Olympic figure skating championships, but had been plagued by a foot injury that forced her out of the Grand Prix series.
Her rivalry with Asada has been one-sided, but Asada is a more seasoned skater now. She also had a triple axel in her repertoire, and will need to nail it every time she tries to keep up with a healthy Kim.
American champion Gracie Gold, 18, seems more likely to push for the podium in 2018, but youthful winners are common at the games. Kim was 19 when she won in Vancouver.
If Ashley Wagner can set aside her poor showing at U.S. nationals, she has a stronger international reputation.
Chan is the odds-on choice among the men, trying for Canada's first gold medal in the Olympics. No, Brian Orser, Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko didn't manage it.
That puts extreme pressure on Chan, who was upset at the Grand Prix Final by Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu, albeit by less than a point.
He also will be tested by Denis Ten of Kazakhstan and Javier Fernandez of Spain.
Chan wasn't sensational in winning his seventh straight Canadian title.
''If I look back in the history books, Jamie (Sale) and David (Pelletier) didn't have a great nationals before the Salt Lake City Games,'' he said, noting that they won pairs in the midst of a judging scandal that led to the current scoring system. ''So it's just that last piece of the puzzle that I need to fit in and get everything working smoothly.''
Smooth and stunning would be the description for the top pair, Russia's Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov. The world champions are fresh from a European championship victory where their elegance and athleticism were amply displayed.
But they hardly are shoo-ins against Germany's Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, the current Grand Prix champs, and Chinese veterans Pang Qing and Tong Jian.
As if figure skating doesn't have enough intrigue, there's also been the Evgeny Plushenko saga. After Maxim Kovtun struggled at Europeans, the Russian federation nominated the 2006 gold medalist and 2010 silver winner to compete in Sochi.
But this is not vintage Plushenko, who has fought injuries before and since the Vancouver Games, and his appearance might almost seem ceremonial.
AP Sports Writers Rachel Cohen and Jimmy Golen contributed to this story.