There's something exciting and unexpected about the ladies' event at this week's 2013 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Yes, we may have a heavy favorite in defending champ Ashley Wagner. But based on what transpired during the fall international competitions, we are in for a fierce battle for the podium and the berths on the World Championships team.
Last season was transformative for Wagner, starting with this very competition, where she rose to the occasion and won her first national title. She has gone on to win three titles this season - one at the free-skate-only Japan Open and two Grand Prix events. Although another win this week for Wagner seems like a bygone conclusion, there are a few skaters who are looking to take advantage of any opening that she might give them.
Even with two-time champ Alissa Czisny out of the competition after dislocating her hip, there are at least four skaters who could pose a strong challenge to Wagner's title-defending hopes.
After emerging last season out of nowhere with big triple-triple combinations and winning the silver at Junior Worlds, Gracie Gold had a shaky start to her rookie senior season. But she settled into the spotlight and won silver at Rostelecom Cup over some pretty big names.
Defending bronze medalist Agnes Zawadzki defeated Gold at U.S. Classic for her first international title and took the bronze behind Gold at Rostelecom. Former U.S. champion Mirai Nagasu seems to have rediscovered her stride with strong and confident skating during the Grand Prix series, including a bronze at NHK Trophy over Zawadzki.
Then there's the big surprise of the season - Christina Gao, who started off her season with a silver at Skate America and went on to compete at the Grand Prix Final alongside Wagner.
And as with the men's event, there will be two berths to Worlds up for grabs, with three to Four Continents on the line.
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The ladies begin their battle this Thursday night at 8:35 p.m. Eastern with the short program. Examiner Figure Skating will be bringing comprehensive live coverage of the ladies' event.