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Will Russian ladies reign supreme at junior worlds?

Uno heavy favorite in men's field; Seguin, Bilodeau face off against Yu, Jin
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Russia's Evgenia Medvedeva is expected to lead a talented ladies field at the 2015 World Junior Championships in Tallinn, Estonia. -Getty Images

The 2015 World Junior Figure Skating Championships begin Wednesday in Tallinn, Estonia, and many wonder: Will Russia sweep the ladies podium for the third consecutive season, or will skaters from other competing nations -- namely the United States and Japan -- crash the party?

With two Junior Grand Prix (JGP) titles and a win at the JGP Final in Barcelona in December, Russia's Evgenia Medvedeva is the favorite. Her teammate Serafima Sakhanovich finished less than four points behind in Spain. Each has consistent triple flip-triple toe loop combinations, and Sakhanovich also includes a triple Lutz-triple toe in her free skate. The third Russian, Maria Sotskova, is not quite as strong and placed fourth at the JGP Final. That may open the door for two medal candidates from Japan: Wakaba Higuchi, the bronze medalist in Barcelona, and Yuka Nagai.

At 15, U.S. bronze medalist Karen Chen is seven weeks too young to qualify for the 2015 World Figure Skating Championships. She also arrives with triple-triple combinations and high hopes. The California skater won silver and bronze at her two JGP events, although she did not qualify for Barcelona.

"I was not surprised that Karen got third at nationals; I had hoped she would make a big splash there," Chen's coach, Tammy Gambill said, "She is excited to compete here and is in good shape. After nationals, we had to go back to [junior versions] of her programs and include a triple loop-triple toe loop combination in the short program."

Asked how Chen stacks up against the likes of Medvedeva and Sakhanovich, Gambill replied, "If Karen skates two clean programs here, it will be difficult to beat her."         

Tyler Pierce, 14th at junior worlds last season, is back after an impressive seventh-place finish at the 2015 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. The 16-year-old changed coaches this season, moving to Monument, Colorado, to work with Kori Ade and Rohene Ward. She arrives in Tallinn with a new free skate, choreographed by Ward to a Pas de Deux from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker.

Ade and Ward have focused on changing some of Pierce's training habits, as well as strengthening her program component score (PCS).

"Tyler wants it so bad and tries so hard, sometimes you have to tell her, 'You're not training smart, you're training hard,'" Ward said. "Sometimes it's not about jumping over and over, and over again. Do it and be done; you don't have to pound it away. There are other things to work on, and Tyler's second mark (PCS) is often lower than her first mark."

Uno favored for men's crown

Two seasons ago, the U.S. men swept the podium at junior worlds. This time around, it's possible that there will be medalists from two or three different countries.

Japan's Shoma Uno is favored after delivering excellent performances at the JGP Final and at his country's senior championships. Other medal candidates include Japan's Sota Yamamoto; Russia's Alexander Petrov and Adian Pitkeev; and China's Boyang Jin. Uno included a quadruple toe loop and two triple Axels in his free skate in Barcelona, and Jin tried three quads -- two toe loops and a Salchow -- although he did not land them cleanly.

World junior bronze medalist Nathan Chen, who placed eighth at the U.S. championships, has not completely recovered from the heel injury he suffered in January, but coach Rafael Arutunian says he is ready and able to compete. Whether he can land his quadruple toe loop and triple Axel -- the jumps most affected by the injury -- is a question mark.

Florida's Andrew Torgashev, 14, broke Chen's scoring record when he won the U.S. junior title in January, gaining high marks not only for his jump combinations and spins, but also for his fine skating skills, transitions and choreography. He does not yet have a triple Axel in his programs, however.

"We want him to go out and show everything that he can do; skate two clean programs," Andrew's father and coach, Artem Torgashev, said. "We are working on the triple Axel for next season."

Chen and Torgashev are joined by U.S. junior silver medalist, Kevin Shum, who hit solid triple flip-triple toe loop and triple Lutz combinations at the U.S. championships.

"Kevin is looking to deliver two strong performances. The goal is to improve upon his programs at the U.S. championships," Shum's coach, Justin Dillon, said. "Since nationals, we have adjusted the steps throughout the program and increased his speed to get the highest possible PCS."

Other medal candidates include Canada's Roman Sadovsky and South Korea's June Hyoung Lee.

China, Canada expected to battle in pairs

Until a few weeks ago, Canada's Julianne Seguin and Charlie Bilodeau were largely viewed as the favorites for the junior pairs title. The duo won gold in Barcelona, defeating four Russian pairs by a healthy margin.

But then China nominated Xiaoyu Yu and Yang Jin, the reigning junior world champions, for Tallinn. Yu and Jin qualified for the senior Grand Prix Final in December, placing fifth. However, they are China's only strong junior pair, and with veterans Qing Pang and Jian Tong returning to competition for the 2015 World Figure Skating Championships in Shanghai, they are not needed for China's senior worlds squad.

Seguin and Bilodeau also competed as seniors this season, winning bronze at the Canadian championships. They will represent Canada at the 2015 World Championships. Coach Josee Picard thinks their greatest challenge is training both junior and senior versions of their programs.

"(For juniors,) we had to take a lift and 30 seconds of music out of the free skate, and go back to side-by-side double Lutzes in the short program," Picard said. "The jumps aren't always in the same pattern, so you have to re-organize (the program) to get back on route.

"Their speed is a lot better, and the lifts are faster," she continued. "The connection and the chemistry between the two of them is quite improved."

Caitlin Fields and Ernie Utah Stevens won the U.S. junior title in January, mainly by gaining higher program components and Grades of Execution (GOEs) than silver medalists Chelsea Liu and Brian Johnson. Serguei Zaitsev, who coaches the pair in Carmel, Indiana, plans to add to their technical element base value in Tallinn.

"They will definitely do a throw triple Salchow (as well as throw triple loop)," Zaitsev said. "We will try to push for a triple twist, but again, our main focus is the quality."

Liu and Johnson, the sole U.S. pairs qualifiers at the JGP final, have more technical content than Fields and Stevens, including a triple twist, two triple throws and side-by-side double Axels.

"We've been training them the same way we've trained them all season, with added focus on finishing every movement, making things bigger, skating faster," said Jenni Meno, who coaches the team in Southern California with her husband, Todd Sand. "We are working to make their triple twist bigger with the intention of being able to do a quad in the future."

Three Russian pairs will also compete for medals, including Daria Beklemisheva and Maxim Bobrov, who placed fifth in the Russian junior championships. The duo arrives as a last-minute substitute for Russia's junior pair champions Maria Vigalova and Egor Zakroev. Vigalova and Zakroev withdrew due to Vigalova's illness. 

Russians expected to prevail in ice dance

Russia's Anna Yanovskaia and Sergei Mozgov are expected to battle for the top of the ice dance podium with their teammates, Betina Popova and Yuri Vlasenko. Their main competition will likely come from two Canadian couples: Madeline Edwards and Zhao Kai Pang, the world junior bronze medalists, and Canadian junior champions Mackenzie Bent and Garrett MacKeen.

As for the United States, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter and their teammates, Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons, hope to improve upon last season's performances that put them fourth and eighth, respectively.

"We try to be on the podium with both teams," said the teams' primary coach, Alexei Kiliakov. "This is a hard -- but a realistic -- goal."

"This is our third junior worlds and each time we improved, so we hope this continues here," Carpenter said.

Both teams made some big changes since winning junior gold and silver, respectively, at the 2015 U.S. Championships.

"We have put more emphasis on the acting features of their programs -- how they perform and interact with each other," said Elena Novak, who is one of the team's coaches at Maryland's Wheaton Ice Skating Academy (WISA). "They are working with an acting teacher, Tatiana Abiyakiy. They've grown a lot more mature and we want to show that."

They also adjusted choreography and elements. The twizzles in McNamara and Carpenter's free dance to Phantom of the Opera are new, as are the arm movements and ending of the team's samba short dance.

The WISA team also changed the first portion of the Parsons' short dance, and made the ending section of their free dance to Notre Dame de Paris more free-flowing and aggressive.

"The kids are excited and ready to show how they have improved," Novak said. "The programs are much different, with the new acting features added."

U.S. junior bronze medalists Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit, who train in Novi, Michigan, in Igor Shpilband's school, will show off their long lines and classic ballroom style in Tallinn. The couple teamed up in March 2014, and this will be just their second international event.