Ice Network

Sofia once again welcomes world's best juniors

Russia, U.S., Japan, China expected to dominate podiums
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After a season spent competing as a senior, Elena Radionova is back at the world junior championships to defend her title. -Getty Images

This week's World Junior Figure Skating Championships take place in Bulgaria's capital city of Sofia, just as they did in 2008 and 2009.

It's been a lucky city for U.S. skaters: Adam Rippon won his two world junior titles here, and Madison Chock and Greg Zuerlein won ice dance gold here in 2009.

The ISU ended qualification rounds in the summer of 2012. Instead, all skaters must achieve a minimum technical elements score (TES) in both their short and free programs at an international event in the present or previous season. Aya Takai and Brian Johnson, seventh in U.S. juniors this season, met the minimums only last week at the Challenge Cup in The Hague, because they didn't have any previous international experience. 

There were two medal sweeps at junior worlds last seasons: U.S. skaters won all three men's medals, and Russia dominated the ladies event. This season, it seems more open.

Once again, Russia has a strong ladies team, headed by 15-year-old defending champion Elena Radionova, the Skate America bronze medalist who was fourth at the Grand Prix Final. Maria Sotskova, winner of this season's Junior Grand Prix Final, withdrew Monday due to illness and was replaced by Evgenia Medvedeva, who was third at the JGP Final. Russia's third entrant, JGP Final silver medalist Serafima Sakhanovich, also has medal hopes.  

U.S. champion Amber Glenn leads her country's charge in Sofia, and she will need her two triple-triple combinations to compete with the Russians. She is joined by Tyler Pierce, the U.S. junior silver medalist, and Karen Chen, who withdrew after the short program at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships because of a foot injury.

Japan's Satoko Miyahara and Rika Hongo, and China's Ziquan Zhao are the biggest medal hopes among the Asian ladies. For the first time, the ladies free skate will be held Sunday, right before the exhibition gala.   

The men's event could be dominated by skaters who competed at this season's JGP Final. The gold medalist from that event, Boyang Jin of China, plans at least three quads in his free skate, something no other junior man has ever done. Russia sends JGP Final silver medalist Adian Pitkeev and Alexander Petrov, fifth at the JGP Final.

The U.S. hopes ride on its junior champion, Nathan Chen, who won both of his Junior Grand Prix events this season and placed third at the JGP Final. Defending world junior bronze medalist Shotari Omori returns after missing much of the season with an ankle injury. U.S. silver medalist Jordan Moeller, the third American, did not reach the JGP Final but is one of most mature junior skaters in the field.

Canada's Nam Nguyen, 15, will compete in Sofia, and then will travel to Japan for the 2014 World Figure Skating Championships later this month. Japan's Keiji Tanaka, the 2011 world junior silver medalist, competes at this event for the third time. With Michael Christian Martinez of the Philippines withdrawing because of injuries, Australia's Brendan Kerry is left as the only skater present in Sofia who also competed in Sochi.

The ice dance event has opened up with the absence of defending champions Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin, who withdrew because of Bukin's illness. The Russians had hoped to win a spot on the Olympic team, and when they did not, they dropped back down to juniors to seek another world junior title.

Anna Yanovskaia and Sergei Mozgov, who took gold at the JGP Final, hope to fill the void left by their teammates. Other Russian couples include Evgenia Kosigina and Nikoli Moroshkin, who were sixth at junior worlds last year, and Betina Popova and Yuri Vlasenko, fourth at the JGP Final. 

Stepanova and Bukin's withdrawal also improves the metal outlook for U.S. junior champions Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, who won silver at the JGP Final. The team trains in Detroit under a team headed by Pasquale Camerlengo.

"[The top teams] are all pretty equal," Baker told icenetwork in Boston. "It's just another opportunity to compete against the best, and we thrive off of it. We consider ourselves just as good as them."

The Wheaton Skating Academy of Maryland sends two teams: JGP Final bronze medalists Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter, and siblings Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons.

Other top couples include Madeline Edwards and Zhao Kai Pang of Vancouver, who placed 12th last season, and Canadian junior champions Mackenzie Bent and Garrett MacKeen.

China's JGP Final winners Xiaoyu Yu and Yang Jin are the pairs favorites. Strong competition should come from the three Russian duos: Vasilisa Davankova and Andrei Deputat, Maria Vigalova and Egor Zakroev, and Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov.

U.S. junior champions Madeline Aaron and Max Settlage, who train in Colorado Springs under Dalilah Sappenfield, will challenge these powerful pairs.