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All you need to know about Olympic team event

Strategy will prove vital for nations in inaugural team showcase
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Reigning U.S. champion Gracie Gold likes the idea of splitting the ladies portion of the team event, perhaps with two-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner. -Jay Adeff

When it comes to saying which U.S. skaters will participate in the new Olympic team figure skating event in Sochi, no one is talking.

Frank Carroll -- who arrived in Oberstdorf, Germany, last week to train his Olympians, U.S. champion Gracie Gold and Kazakhstan's world silver medalist Denis Ten -- is as much in the dark as anyone.

"Gracie is ready," Carroll said. "She looks forward to competing in the team event if she is selected. She can do the short program, the long program, or both. But we don't even know yet whether she will be nominated."

It's almost certain Gold will take part in the team event, which begins Feb. 6, the night before the Games' opening ceremony, with the pairs and men's short programs. It continues two nights later with the short dance, ladies short program and pairs free skate and concludes Feb. 9 with the remaining events.

So, will Gold perform her short program, her free skate, or both?

That's partly up to U.S. Figure Skating's International Selection Committee, the same group that decided which skaters to send to Sochi.

"As part of the International Selection Committee discussions this week, they will rank each athlete [in each discipline], and the top ranking athlete in each discipline will choose if they want to perform in both events or just one," said U.S. Figure Skating Executive Director David Raith at a press conference at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston.

"If it is just one, we will go to the second-ranked athlete," Raith continued.

To rank skaters, the committee considers several criteria, including results at the U.S. championships as well as the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships and this season's Grand Prix events.

U.S. Figure Skating will announce the skaters it is entering at a team leaders' meeting scheduled for Feb. 5 at 10:00 a.m. Sochi time (1:00 a.m. ET). Other countries will nominate their skaters at the same meeting. This being figure skating, though, the discussion won't end there.

In two of the disciplines, countries may use different skaters or teams for the short program and free skate. According to ISU Communication No. 1844, competitors in the men's and pairs short programs must be finalized by 7:00 p.m. on Feb. 5. The deadline for naming competitors in the ladies and ice dance shorts is Feb. 7, while decisions on the pairs free skate must be made by Feb. 8. The deadline for entries in the men's, ladies and ice dance frees is Feb. 9.

Based on previous comments, two-time U.S. pairs champions Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir and six-time U.S. ice dance champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White, are likely to request to compete in both programs.

Marina Zoueva, coach of Davis and White as well as Canadian Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, doesn't think competing in the team event will hurt her teams in the individual contest, which begins a week after the team event concludes.

"I'm excited because this event turns our individual sport into a team sport," Zoueva said. "People will think more about each other, and there will be more friendships between the skaters, which I like."

What U.S. Figure Skating will do for men's and ladies is less clear. Gold won the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships by some 19 points, but two-time U.S. champion Ashley Wagner -- fourth at the U.S. championships but selected for Sochi by the committee -- posted better international results this season, including a bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final in December. They could share the effort, which would suit Gold fine.

"I think it would be best since [the team event] is new to probably split; just do one program and let another lady step in," Gold said on a media teleconference prior to her departure for Oberstdorf. "That way, more [athletes] get to experience it, and we don't get too tired for the individual competition."

Jeremy Abbott won his fourth U.S. title largely on the strength of a spectacular short program, including a quad toe-triple toe combination. He was defeated in the free skate by U.S. silver medalist Jason Brown, who captivated the audience with his Riverdance routine. Both men won bronze medals on the fall Grand Prix circuit; their free skate scores in those events were nearly identical, although Brown's overall score (243.09) was a bit higher than Abbott's (237.41).

How team event scoring will work

Ten countries qualified for the team event based on results at the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships and several other events, including the fall Grand Prix Series. In order of qualification, they are:

1. Canada
2. Russia
3. United States
4. Japan
5. Italy
6. France
7. China
8. Germany
9. Ukraine
10. Great Britain

Scoring is simple. All 10 countries compete short programs in each of the four disciplines. Winners are awarded 10 points, second place gets nine points, and so on down the line. Results are tallied, and the top five countries move on to the free skate round. Scores from the short program round carry over. Whoever gets the most points wins gold.

Russia, considered co-favorite with Canada, has a difficult choice: Should reigning world pairs champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov compete both programs, or should they split the event with one of Russia's two other Olympic pairs? The pairs team event free skate is on Feb. 8; the pairs individual short program takes place Feb. 11.

Volosozhar and Trankov's top rivals, four-time German world pairs champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, announced months ago they will not take part in the team competition. If Volosozhar and Trankov elect not to compete in the free skate, it could open the door for Canada with its two strong pairs: world bronze medalists Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, and Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch, fourth in the world last season.

Other points to consider

  • 2006 Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko is Russia's sole man entered in Sochi. Should the 31-year-old skater injure himself after or during the team event's short program, there is no possibility of a team event substitution. However, ISU Communication No. 1844 states a substitution may be made for the men's individual event if it is deemed medically urgent and filed by Feb. 10. First alternate is Maxim Kovtun, the 18-year-old who defeated Plushenko at this season's Russian championships but placed a disappointing fifth at the 2014 European Figure Skating Championships.
     
  • Given its relative weakness in pairs and ice dance, Japan is not expected to medal in the team event. Its strong single skaters, though, could act as spoilers for other teams.
     
  • Five-time European champion Carolina Kostner of Italy will perform in the short program. No announcement has been made about her participation in the free skate, should Italy reach the final round, which seems likely.
     
  • Not much attention has been paid to China, but Zijun Li had an impressive bronze medal-winning performance at the 2014 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, and Han Yan has shown flashes. China also has a solid pairs contingent, led by 2010 Olympic silver medalists Qing Pang and Jian Tong. Dance is a relative weakness.

Klaus-Reinhold Kany contributed to this article.

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