SOCHI, Russia — Ashley Wagner, a self-described vicious competitor, concedes it will be a little strange to cheer on fellow American Gracie Gold.
Team figure skating makes its debut at the Olympics on Thursday, one of the TV-friendly events held a day before the opening ceremony. Ten countries will send out one entrant in each of the four disciplines: men, women, pairs and ice dance.
The nation with the highest total score after the short and long programs wins — suddenly giving figure skaters the chance at two medals at one Winter Games.
Canada is the favorite with three-time world champion Patrick Chan and reigning ice dance Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Host country Russia — with medal contenders in the women’s, pairs and ice dance events — could challenge if Evgeni Plushenko looks more like the skater who won silver at the 2010 Games than the one who finished second at his own national championships this year.
Plushenko, coming off back surgery, was picked for Russia’s only men’s spot despite finishing behind Maxim Kovtun at nationals. But after impressing Russian officials at a closed-door performance, the 2006 Olympic champion was selected. He already owns three medals, also winning silver in 2002.
American ice dancer Charlie White, who could leave Sochi with two more medals to go with the silver he won in Vancouver, said skaters joked about only being able to win one event at the Olympics.
“Obviously that was something we grew up with and part of what made figure skating so special,” he said. “But having only had one opportunity to win a medal at the last Olympics, we certainly cherish the opportunity to walk away with more than one.”
The U.S. can likely count on a big score from ice dance world champions Meryl Davis and White, with good balance in the other disciplines.
That will prove key because of a twist in the rules: Each country can use a different entrant for the short and long program in two of the disciplines. So strategy comes into play, as national federations weigh the potential for high marks against the risk of wearing out top skaters before their individual events.
That’s a particularly vexing problem for the men, whose short program in singles is four days after their team free skate. U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott will represent the Americans in the team short program Thursday, but runner-up Jason Brown can replace him in the free skate.
“It’s really cool to be part of Team USA, not just go there representing Team USA but really actually be part of a team, because we never get to experience that,” said Abbott, who is at his second Olympics.
The national federations can wait to make their picks for each program, so injuries, illness and momentum could change preliminary plans. Today, the Americans announced their picks for Thursday’s men’s and pairs short programs, with U.S. champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir joining Abbott.
Wagner, a two-time U.S. champion who struggled at nationals this year, acknowledged today that she was planning to skate the short program. Gold, this year’s champ, could replace her for the free skate.
But if Wagner performs brilliantly, that could make for an interesting decision for U.S. Figure Skating officials, since the women’s individual short program isn’t until Feb. 19.
The top five countries after the short programs will advance to the free skates. The women’s and ice dance short programs and the pairs free skate are Saturday, with the men’s, women’s and ice dance long programs Sunday.
Wagner was fourth at nationals, falling twice in her free skate, but U.S. officials added her to the team over third-place finisher Mirai Nagasu because of her overall strong performance in the previous year. She hopes the short program in the team event will allow her to regain momentum heading into her individual competition.
And when she’s not skating, she’ll be cheering on teammates.
“I’ll potentially be watching Gracie, and anywhere else we’re competition, but this time around we’re cheering for the same thing,” Wagner said. “It’s definitely weird, because skating is an individual sport. But we’re all getting used to it, and it’s really great for us.”
Wagner trusts that Brown will supply his teammates with some great gear for watching from the stands. The 19-year-old, a fan favorite for his ebullient personality, recently tweeted a photo of himself decked out in stars-and-stripes pants, shirt, bowtie, hat, sunglasses, flags and pompom — though Wagner insists the Americans won’t be too wild in their attire.
“He is the most patriotic man I have ever met,” Wagner said. “I’m sure he’ll have something in the works.”