Irina Slutskaya, Russia
A native of Moscow, 22-year-old Slutskaya has a reputation for her bubbly personality and her propensity for winning. After a disappointing 1998-99 season, she re-emerged with consecutive wins at the European Championships, Russian National Championships and ISU Grand Prix Finals. She credits her family and her 1999 marriage to longtime beau Sergei Mikheev for motivating her comeback. Recently, her only major losses were to American Michelle Kwan at the 2000 and 2001 World Championships.
Michelle Kwan, USA
At 21, Kwan already is one of the most-decorated figure skaters in history. In the past six years, she has won four world titles, five national championships and an Olympic silver medal. She rocked the sport earlier this year, when she announced — on separate occasions — that she split with choreographer Lori Nichol and longtime coach Frank Carroll. Her quest for independence has reaped mixed results, including a controversial win at Skate America in October and third-place finish the following week at Skate Canada. She rebounded last month with much-improved performances at the ISU Grand Prix Final.
Sarah Hughes, USA
The 16-year-old from Great Neck, N.Y., has rocketed up the standings over the past three years. She medaled at every event she entered in the 2000-01 season and earned her first victory over Kwan and Slutskaya at Skate Canada in November. Hughes comes from a skating family: Her father played hockey at Cornell, captaining the 1969-70 team; her brothers also play hockey, and her sister competes in figure skating.
Maria Butyrskaya, Russia
The veteran 29-year-old Butyrskaya was the first Russian to win the World Championships in ladies figure skating. When she won the 1998 title at age 26, she also became the oldest ladies world champion to date. Butyrskaya was born in Moscow and began skating at her kindergarten. She is a six-time Russian national champion, two-time European champion and finished fourth at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Butyrskaya does much of her own choreography.
The dark horses
Depending on their performances at the U.S. Nationals, Angela Nikodinov or Sasha Cohen; Fumie Suguri of Japan; Russia's Viktoria Volchkova.
Alexei Yagudin, Russia
The Performer. At the 1998 Nagano Olympics, Yagudin competed while fighting pneumonia and still managed to finish fifth. The 21-year-old has won three World Championships and two European titles. During that time, he has built a chilly rivalry with countryman Evgeny Plushenko. Though their relationship is not friendly, the two have taken skating to a new level, combining technical difficulty with artistry. They are the front-runners for Olympic gold. Yagudin left his hometown of St. Petersburg to train in Newington, Conn.
Evgeny Plushenko, Russia
The Technician. Plushenko has established himself as the benchmark of technical prowess. The 19-year-old from St. Petersburg includes a quadruple toe loop-triple toe loop-double loop in competition and has attempted a quad Lutz. He is also the only male skater to perform the "Beillmann" spin in senior-level competition. He trains with Alexei Mishin, who also used to coach Yagudin. Plushenko was beaten only once last year — by Yagudin.
Timothy Goebel, USA
The Jumper. Goebel early in his career was dubbed the "Quad King," with a bevy of record-book firsts: He was the first skater to land three quadruple jumps in a competition (1999 Skate America), the first American skater to land a quad in competition and the first skater to land a quad Salchow in competition (1998 Junior Grand Prix Final). Working with coach Frank Carroll — former coach of Michelle Kwan — has resulted in much-improved artistry, and the 21-year-old Goebel has emerged as a legitimate Olympic medal contender.
Todd Eldredge, USA
The Veteran. At 30, Eldredge won his first U.S. title when Plushenko was just 8 years old. Despite his decorated career, Eldredge's desire to perform well at the Olympics has kept him in the game — he was disappointed by his fourth-place showing at the 1998 Nagano Games. After two years away from concerted competition, Eldredge came back to place second at Nationals in 2001 and third at the World Championships.
The dark horses
Elvis Stojko of Canada; Japan's Takeshi Honda.
Elena Berezhnaya/Anton Sikharulidze, Russia
Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze joined forces after Berezhnaya suffered a near-fatal head injury during a practice session with another partner. His blade sliced into her head, leaving her unable to speak or walk. After a lengthy rehabilitation, she teamed up with Sikharulidze, and the two went on to win the silver medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games, two world titles, two European championships and three Russian national titles. This season, they won every Grand Prix event they entered, except the finale.
Jamie Sale/David Pelletier, Canada
Sale and Pelletier burst onto the scene in 2000 with a fourth-place finish at the World Championships. They came back the next year to win the title and have established themselves as solid medal contenders. This season, they have won every event they entered, including the ISU Grand Prix Final last month in Kitchener, Ontario. The team recently changed coaches, going back to Sale's former coach, Jan Ullmark. They train in Edmonton.
Xue Shen/Hongbo Zhao, China
Five-time national champions of China, Shen and Zhao so far have been denied their first win against the top teams from Russia and Canada. However, they are the first Chinese pair to win an ISU Championship, the 1999 Four Continents Championship held in Salt Lake City. They finished fifth at the Nagano Olympics and have placed as high as second at the World Championships (in 1999 and 2000).
Kyoko Ina/John Zimmerman, USA
Ina and Zimmerman have added technical difficulty to their programs and improved upon their consistency this season, and their competition results reflect it. With second-place finishes this season at Nations Cup, Skate America and Trophee Lalique, the American team appears to have hit its stride. Ina and Zimmerman teamed up in 1998 when Ina split with Jason Dungjen. Ina and Dungjen placed fourth at the Nagano Olympics. With Zimmerman, Ina has won two national titles and last month placed fourth at the ISU Grand Prix Final.
The dark horses
Maria Petrova/Alexei Tikhonov, Russia; Tatiana Totmianina/Maxim Marinin, Russia; Sarah Abitbol/Stephane Bernadis, France.
Marina Anissina/Gwendal Peizerat, France
Anissina and Peizerat teamed up in 1993, after Anissina lost her partner, Ilia Averbukh, to Irina Lobacheva. Lobacheva and Averbukh later were married. Anissina then moved to France to skate with Peizerat. The two have since won six consecutive French championships, four world medals and an Olympic bronze medal. They finished behind Canadians Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz at the Grand Prix Final last month.
Shae-Lynn Bourne/Victor Kraatz, Canada
A stunning victory at the Grand Prix Final gives this team momentum heading toward the Salt Lake Games. Bourne and Kraatz have skated together since 1991, during which time they have won eight Canadian national titles, four world bronze medals and placed fourth at the 1998 Olympics.
Barbara Fusar-Poli/Maurizio Margaglio, Italy
Fusar-Poli and Margaglio are the first Italians to win the World and European Championships (2001). They are seven-time Italian champions. However, they suffered a shocking fourth-place finish at the Grand Prix Final last month in Kitchener, Ontario. Fusar-Poli married her longtime boyfriend, short track speedskater Diego Cattani, in June 2000.
Margarita Drobiazko/Povilas Vanagas, Lithuania
Drobiazko and Vanagas are the only married couple among the elite dance teams. They are also the first skaters from Lithuania ever to medal at a figure skating championship. They won the bronze medal at the European and World championships in 2000. This season, they placed third at Skate America and Trophee Lalique, second at NHK Trophy in Japan and third at the Grand Prix Final.
The dark horses:
Galit Chait/Sergei Sakhnovsky, Israel; Naomi Lang/Peter Tchernyshev, USA.