SOCHI, Russia -- For as long as there have been sequins, figure skating has been the haven of the individual. Skating is a slippery sport, and a singular one. Yes, there are pairs skaters and ice dancers — disciplines where it takes two to tango — but by and large, especially for Americans, figure skating is a solitary endeavor.
That officially ends Thursday, one day before the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, when the inaugural Olympic figure skating team competition begins with the men's short program, followed by the short program for the pairs. The women and ice dancers compete Saturday, followed by all the long programs spread out over two days, with everything ending Sunday with the medal ceremony.
Think Ryder Cup, only with judges.
VIDEO: Previewing the team event
"I think that this will be an incredible event to watch," two-time U.S. national champion Ashley Wagner, who will skate the women's short program for the United States, said Wednesday after practice. "I think honestly, any team event is really easy for fans to get into just because you get behind the country and you start cheering for them and it's kind of easier than (cheering for) individual (skaters), because you have to pick and choose which ones you like the best, I guess."
So instead of competing against Gracie Gold, the 2014 national champion, Wagner is on her side. After Wagner skates the short program, Gold will get the call in the long Sunday night. These two singles skaters have become crucial parts of the U.S. team effort, the Tiger and Phil, so to speak, of figure skating — except that Wagner and Gold get along.
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"I'm used to it at this point," said Wagner, who has twice competed for the United States in test-run international team events over the past two years, leading the Americans to a gold medal in the competition last year.
"It's always definitely a little bit strange because I'll be watching Gracie," she added. "Anywhere else we're competition, but this time around, we're cheering for the same thing. It's definitely weird because skating is an individual sport but we're all getting used to it."
So should we. If the allure of seeing something new and different in the most popular televised Winter Olympic sport isn't enough to pique your interest, perhaps this is, Mr. and Ms. America: the United States is favored to win a medal in the event.
Russia and Canada, who appear to be fielding the strongest collection of skaters across the four disciplines, are expected to duel for the gold, with the Americans favored to win the bronze, although that could change with a slip or fall here and there. More than a few slips or falls here and there by certain people at certain times, combined with lights-out performances by the Americans, could even land the U.S. team at the top of the podium, which would be quite the upset.
But that's the whole point. We have no idea what will happen, who will crack under the weight of the pressure of competing for their teammates at the Olympics, or who will rise to the occasion. This is uncharted territory, which is what makes it so much fun.
Most entertaining of all will be the re-emergence of 31-year-old Evgeni Plushenko of Russia, the 2006 Olympic gold medalist and 2010 silver medalist who has come back to try to win another gold medal in this team event on home ice. Talk about an opportunity. And talk about pressure.
We last saw Plushenko pouting on the medal stand after losing to American Evan Lysacek in Vancouver. If he falls, the judges are likely to prop him up with artistic scores that would be an homage to his past glories, but it still could cost his team. And if he skates cleanly, and leads Russia to victory, isn't that the stuff of legend, at least in Mother Russia?
Meanwhile, the best medal hopes for the United States in figure skating are ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who are favored to win the gold. But that could be it, except for the team — which makes this inaugural event all the more important to the Americans.
"I think the U.S. has a great opportunity at a medal, and, as Americans, what do we want?" Wagner said. "We want to bring home the hardware."