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U.S. women struggle before Vancouver

Pick an Olympics, any Olympics, and you'd find an American woman squarely in the mix for figure skating's gold medal.

With Vancouver only two months away, the Americans are in danger of being bit players in the Olympics' glamour event. They've gone three years without a medal at the world championships, their longest drought in 45 years, and send only Ashley Wagner to this week's Grand Prix final.

"We have a lot of young, talented girls coming up, and everything changes in this sport so quickly," said Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen, whose comeback plans are about the only thing creating a buzz in the United States. "You don't know who will be on top at any time or who will improve. I think we have the potential in the next few years with these girls."

That will be too late to capitalize on an Olympics that's the next best thing to being on home soil, however.

Americans have commanded the spotlight in women's skating since Sonja Henie hung up her skates in the late 1930s. They've won seven Olympic golds, including three of the last five. They've claimed at least one medal at every Winter Games since 1952 except in 1964, which came just three years after a plane crash killed the entire U.S. team.

Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill and Michelle Kwan had that all-important crossover appeal. The talent pipeline seemed endless, too, with another budding star -- or two or three -- ready to take the ice whenever a big name was finished.

But Cohen and Kwan haven't competed since 2006, and none of the young Americans has been able to fill the void -- on or off the ice.

That Cohen's return was greeted with such enthusiasm and excitement further emphasized the Americans' struggles. She hasn't skated competitively since the 2006 world championships, where she won the bronze medal, yet was immediately dubbed a favorite to win a second national title and contend for a medal in Vancouver.

She also got invites to Skate America -- no surprise, considering it's put on by U.S. Figure Skating -- and Trophee Eric Bompard.

But Cohen had to withdraw from both Grand Prix events because of a nagging case of tendinitis in her right calf. She plans to be at nationals next month, but she would go into the Olympics having virtually no face time with international judges.

"It's not a matter of what happens in October and November but in January," she said. "I have seen it over the years, how you want it all in hand now, but it doesn't work that way. You need to have faith and perseverance. January matters."

February, too.

If Cohen can't compete at nationals, which are Jan. 15-23 in Spokane, Wash., or she fails to make the Olympic team, the United States will have to hope two women unknown to the majority of Americans can capture the country's -- and the TV audience's -- attention.

"Who they think is going to be the most competitive is not always the person who wins," Wagner said. "Also, miracles happen in the Olympic year. The last couple of years, the winners have been complete surprises. So people shouldn't be pigeonholing us just yet."

It's not as if the United States doesn't have talent.

American women swept the podium at the junior world championships for the first time in 2007 and then did it again in 2008. Rachael Flatt, runner-up at the national championships the last two years, was fifth at her first senior worlds, an impressive debut.

Wagner medaled at both of her Grand Prix events, finishing second at the Rostelecom Cup and third at the NHK Trophy. Though she was the only American to qualify for the six-woman Grand Prix final, Flatt and national champion Alissa Czisny were the first alternates.

"We have so many girls that could make it to the Olympics," Wagner said. "I couldn't say we're all like Michelle, but there are a bunch of amazing skaters."

But youth and inconsistency have left the Americans playing catch-up.

The Americans had to send the B team to the 2008 world championships because three of the top four at nationals weren't old enough to qualify, and they weren't able to hang onto the maximum three spots the United States normally has. That, in turn, left the Americans with no margin for error this year, when worlds served as the qualifier for the number of slots at Vancouver.

Once again, the United States was only able to earn two spots. With one fewer skater in Vancouver than normal, that's one fewer chance to medal.

The current judging system is also far more demanding technically, making clean programs a rarity. It's also more transparent, rewarding skaters only for what they've done on the ice that day.

"The new system is more unforgiving and I think that's pretty much what everyone wanted. They wanted more of the politics to be gone and more of the judging based on previous reputation to be gone," said Tom Zakrajsek, Flatt's coach. "So that's a byproduct of that. You have to be really consistent."

Some skaters are. Kim Yu-na will go to Vancouver as the overwhelming favorite for gold, having won the world title with a record score in March and then topping it at Trophee Eric Bompard. Her short program score at Skate America was so monstrous it would have made her a contender in the men's event.

Flatt beat Kim in the free skate at Skate America, but Kim had built up such a big lead it didn't matter.

Kim is a megastar in her native South Korea, and her rivalry with Japan's Mao Asada has driven figure skating's popularity to dizzying heights in Asia. With her good looks, ever-improving English (she trains in Toronto) and talent that gives spectators goosebumps, Kim might provide all the star power needed in Vancouver.

But U.S. fans like nothing more than to root for their fellow Americans.

"That is the market in our country, so it certainly would help," Zakrajsek said of having a U.S. woman among the contenders. "[But] I think the Olympics are a pretty special thing, and I think there are a lot of U.S. athletes in the other disciplines that can reach for a podium placement. Hopefully there's some good bounce that comes out of whatever athletes are on the podium, not just the women."