Three ladies, three men, two pairs and two ice dance teams will represent the United States in Utah. The field, which includes 4-time world champion Michelle Kwan and 1996 World Champion Todd Eldredge, is one of the strongest ever for the U.S. Kwan and Eldredge also competed in 1998 in Nagano and finished second and fourth, respectively. This year, the two veterans face not only their Russian rivals but also their own teammates in the battle for gold.

Figure skating basics

To be victorious at the Olympics, one must demonstrate both technical prowess and artistic talent in the wake of intense pressure. In figure skating, the judging is strictly based on these elements. A panel of nine judges from different countries watches each event and awards each skater/team two sets of marks ? the first for technical merit, and the second for presentation.

Technical merit at the Olympic level includes triple (or quadruple) jumps, spins, footwork and lifts and throw jumps for pairs. No jumps or spins are allowed in the dance. The presentation mark is based on how well the technique is presented and on the overall energy of the program.

Some skaters, such as 1998 Olympic Champion Tara Lipinski, score higher on the first mark than the second, but most skaters, like Kwan, score slightly higher on the presentation. All skaters strive for clean performances and good marks all around.

Pairs could be wide open

The 2002 U.S. Champions Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman have demonstrated good command of the difficult throw triples but have only recently developed the style needed to compete with the Russian pairs as well as the current world champions, Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada.

The Russian pairs have ruled the top of the Olympic podium for over 40 years, but this year may be the first that a team from a different nation, including China, stands on top. Meanwhile, Ina and Zimmerman are strong medal contenders.

Italian dancers are tops

The U.S. is not usually as well represented in ice dancing. The Russians have dominated the dance as well, but this year the Italian team of Barbra Fusar-Poli and Maurizio Margaglio could claim victory. The American team of Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev is not a medal factor this year but has high hopes for a top six finish.

Russian men look strong

All three U.S. men could medal. Eldredge has 12 years of international experience, while Michael Weiss is a two-time world bronze medalist, and young Timothy Goebel is a master of the quadruple, the critical jump in the men’s event.

Eldredge and Weiss are sentimental favorites, but the quad has often eluded both skaters. They will need to land it to compete with Goebel and the Russians, Evgeny Plushenko and Alexei Yagudin, each of whom has won a world title.

U.S women could sweep

Now we turn to Kwan and the ladies. Since Lipinski left the amateur ranks after 1998, Kwan’s rival has been Irina Slutskaya. Though she has never won at worlds, the Russian has defeated Kwan in every major international event this year and is starving for gold at her second Olympics. Kwan’s repertoire includes the key triple-triple combination, but her technical arsenal is less demanding than that of Slutskaya, Lipinski in 1998, or even Kristi Yamaguchi in 1992.

To win here, Kwan, who is training without a coach, must deliver all the triples she can muster and combine them with her trademark elegance and style. Her younger teammates, Sarah Hughes and Sasha Cohen, have gained international recognition this year and have the artistic skills and drive to compete with Kwan for the gold. The competition should be one for the ages.

Rhodes can be reached at

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