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Lipinski says to expect the unexpected in 2014-15

1998 Olympic champion offers frank analysis of sport, competitors
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Tara Lipinski gives a refreshingly candid take on the upcoming season and what we can expect to see from several key players. -Getty Images

What does the season after the Olympics have in store for the world of figure skating? For Tara Lipinski, it brings plenty of mystery -- and with that, plenty of intrigue.

"I feel like after an Olympic year, everything starts over," the 1998 Olympic champion said. "I think we might see names that we didn't expect to see on the podium, and for those skaters, it's that moment that changes the path for the next four years. I feel like this season may be a bumpy one."

But bumpy doesn't necessarily mean bad. Sochi gold medalists Adelina Sotnikova, Yuzuru Hanyu, and Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov are still in the mix. With household names in ladies and dance sitting the season out (or bidding adieu for good), the road to Pyeongchang, site of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, is as open as an empty ice rink.

"I don't want the skaters to think about the next Olympics," Lipinski advised. "You have to have a certain strategy. They know what is too risky. I would say push for the risky-slash-uncomfortable. I know we have four more seasons, but it goes by really quickly."

It also seems like things have gone quickly since Sochi, the world championships and touring season. Next month, U.S. skaters will gather at the annual Champs Camp in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to showcase their new programs.

There is plenty of change in the air for Team USA: ladies, men and pairs can now use lyrics in their music (but who will take that chance?); the dance teams are out to prove themselves in the absence of Meryl Davis and Charlie White; and a game of "musical partners" has left the pairs crown up for grabs.

But some things haven't changed. Jeremy Abbott will skate this year after saying throughout much of the 2013-14 campaign that he would retire at season's end. The four-time U.S. champion was 12th in Sochi and fifth at worlds.

"When I watched Jeremy in Sochi, I just thought, 'How can this happen?'" Lipinski said of the veteran's infamous fall in the short program. "He's had some incredible 'Whoa!' moments in his career. But when he fell at the Olympics, something changed in him. I think that was a turning point. It doesn't matter if he's coming back to win a Grand Prix or worlds -- his journey is inspirational."

Abbott will debut at Skate America in October alongside Jason Brown, who Lipinski says she hopes will ramp up his technical arsenal (particularly by adding a quad) and, thus, make himself a serious threat.

The NBC Sports commentator believes this season will be a pivotal one for the U.S. ladies. New storylines will develop, shoving the last Olympic cycle further into the past. Case in point: Gracie Gold and Mirai Nagasu got the nod for Skate America.

"I'm not speaking for Mirai, but the Olympics and Skate America are two very different things," Lipinski said of the decision to send Nagasu to the first Grand Prix of the season. "But, at the same time, it is a fresh start for her to put everything that happened last season behind her. Hopefully, she's training really hard and she's going to prove to everyone that she deserves a chance to be respected."

Gold openly stated after Sochi that she'll go for the medal that matches her name in 2018, when she'll be a stately 22 years old.

"Gracie had a great showing at the Olympics, but she wasn't perfect," Lipinski explained. "I think that Gracie is one of our most talented skaters, so I'd love to see her do her best and win everything. This could be her time to begin to rise. I think she should not only make the podium [in South Korea], but her goal is going to be to try and win it."

And what of Ashley Wagner, the two-time U.S. champion who is now 23?

"I felt like the vibe with Ashley was that she was going to move on," Lipinski admitted. "I think it's going to be tough. The technical level that we're going to see is going to be insane. It's just going to get harder and harder with these girls continuing to raise the level. These little Russians like [Elena] Radionova -- there is a full group of them that are waiting to take center stage."

Wagner was assigned to Skate Canada and Trophée Eric Bompard in Paris. She is the two-time defending champion in France but hasn't skated in Canada since 2011, when she won bronze.

Lipinski sees plenty of opportunity for the U.S. in both dance and pairs, the former having more international cache.

"We really had this eight-year build-up to [Meryl and Charlie's] crowning," Lipinski explained. "It's time for new energy. This first season (after the Olympics) is crucial: Dance goes in a pecking order. We're in a slightly more open year. Someone has their chance to set the tone as, 'Oh, this is the next team to watch.'"

In pairs, Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir, the two-time U.S. champions who were ninth in Sochi, are no longer skating together, opting for new partners for the next Olympic cycle.

"I was disappointed to hear about Marissa and Simon," Lipinski said. "I thought they were very exciting. They had a dynamic energy. Watching them at the Olympics, I thought they had more to show us after last season, so I'm sad about that."

Lipinski expressed excitement over Russian Olympic champs Volosozhar and Trankov continuing when many thought they might step away from the sport. The Sochi gold medalists are also due to compete at Skate America, which they've won each of the last two years.

"I wouldn't have thought that Tatiana and Max were going to keep skating," Lipinski said. "It's such a personal decision. Watching a pair team that is so accomplished that doesn't need to stay around, it's so exciting. We thought we've seen their best, but now it's like, 'What are we going to see now?'"

Lipinski said she appreciates the continued dedication of those skaters who are getting up there in age -- like the 29-year-old Abbott or Adam Rippon, now 24 -- but are still soldiering on.

"You look at someone like Jeremy or Adam, and I respect them [for continuing]," Lipinski said. "Obviously, you're out there to win medals, but their commitment shows that it means so much more. These skaters decide to sacrifice their lives for another year to be in that rink training and laying everything out on the line. It's a personal issue between you and the ice. To me, that's the beauty of this sport and how connected we are to it. It's such a powerful thing."

And what about the powerful move of the ISU to allow lyrics in all disciplines except dance this season?

"Personally? I think I would have wanted to skate to lyrics right away," Lipinski said, laughing. "I would have jumped at the opportunity. Lyrics can be quite moving. I feel like everyone is in the same boat this season, though: They don't want to be the first person to try and skate with lyrics."

Lipinski continues her skating work this fall as a TV commentator, and said things have been crazy, "in a good way," with her work otherwise. She and fellow analyst Johnny Weir have "a lot of stuff in the works that we can't really talk about yet." She said experiences like appearing on Entertainment Tonight and So You Think You Can Dance were part of her "new journey."

But mostly, Lipinski is looking forward to more skating in the season to come.

"Johnny and I were talking the other day, and we're excited about the new season," she said. "Obviously, it's not on the scale of the Olympics, but we love being part of it. This is the season when it's crucial to spice something up. It's always interesting after an Olympic year. It'll be good to see what goes down."