Feb. 8 (UPI) — Olympic figure skaters take to the ice starting Thursday night in Pyeongchang, South Korea, for some of the most anticipated events at the Games.
The competition is expected to be close in several top events, bringing a display of artistry and complicated technical routines. It all goes down against a background of drama: a world champion recovering from injury, the best of the North Korea team, two teen girls in a close race for gold and a skater feuding with the vice president.
Here are some highlights of what to expect:
Reigning champion Yuzuru Hanyu withdraws from team event
The most recognizable name in figure skating will be returning to attempt a second Olympic victory after a long recovery from an ankle injury in November. Yuzuru Hanyu, 23, of Japan is the reigning Olympic champion and holds the world records in men’s singles for highest total score, highest short program score, highest free skate score, and holds the World Champion title as well.
Unlike many athletes in his field, he’s risen to celebrity status in his home country where he endorses everything from fabric softeners to airlines. The popular Japanese anime Yuri!!! On Ice is based on him.
Many were betting hard on a second Olympic victory for Hanyu until he injured himself in the Grand Prix series earlier this year. Taking a hard fall on a quadruple lutz during practice before the NHK Trophy, he injured multiple ligaments in his ankle and withdrew from that day’s competition. His return to competitive ice will take place at the Olympics.
Due to a long period off the ice and out of practice, Hanyu is forgoing the figure skating team event and will only compete individually in order to maximize practice time. This is uncharacteristic of the young champion, who famously insisted on competing in the 2014 Cup of China with a head injury and a split chin.
His coach, Brian Orser, assured fans Tuesday that Hanyu is back at 100 percent and will be going for the gold once again.
“I’m really impressed as to how he’s managed it and kept himself cool,” Orser told NBC. “We have a plan and we’re staying on it; every day is getting better. He’s quite remarkable.”
Hanyu is known for overcoming challenges, often skating through injury or climbing his way to victory from low ranks. Many have their fingers crossed that he’ll succeed again in Pyeongchang.
Russian race for ladies’ gold: Evgenia Medvedeva vs. Alina Zagitova
The battle for the ladies’ figure skating gold medal is essentially a face-off between two Russian teenagers, who will be competing as “OAR (Olympic Athletes From Russia).”
Evgenia Medvedeva, 18, is the reigning world champion who holds all three world records for ladies’ figure skating scores. She went on a winning streak from the later half of her 2015 season all the way to January, when she won her first silver medal in years at the European Championships. She lost to her teammate, Alina Zagitova.
Alina is a technical monster with the highest base value in the game at just 15 years old. She’s taken gold at every single event this year, including the Grand Prix Final after Medvedeva withdrew due to an injury in her foot. Medvedeva was considered an Olympic shoo-in until she was upset by Alina.
Fans are now unsure which skater will come out on top.
Nathan Chen pushes quad revolution to limit
Team USA’s No. 1 medal contender — and biggest threat to Hanyu for the gold — is Nathan Chen, 18.
Chen made history in September by becoming the first skater to land five different kinds of quadruple jumps, a technical element that requires skaters to rotate four times in the air before landing.
Chen is often criticized for lacking complex transitions in his skating and subpar artistry, but he is by far the biggest jumper in the game with the largest quad arsenal. Taking on those challenging jump elements adds up to massive technical scores. Should he skate clean, he could be untouchable.
Team USA sends first openly gay figure skater, Adam Rippon
While many former Olympians are openly gay, Adam Rippon is the first to compete on Olympic ice for the Winter Games as such.
Rippon, 28, was named to the team in January and has been outspoken about his sexual orientation, pledging to boycott the Team USA White House visit and criticizing Vice President Mike Pence, who will lead the American delegation to South Korea.
“You mean Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy?” Rippon told USA Today.
Representatives for Pence dispute the accusation, saying Pence never advocated for gay conversion therapy. Pence has offered to meet with Rippon.
On the ice, Rippon’s routines are known for their flair. His signature move is a triple lutz with his arms overhead.
I was recently asked in an interview what its like to be a gay athlete in sports. I said that it’s exactly like being a straight athlete. Lots of hard work but usually done with better eye brows.
— Adam Rippon (@Adaripp) December 28, 2017
Rippon told NBC that coming out has made him a better athlete and that he hopes he inspires others.
Team USA freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy is also openly gay.
Mirai Nagasu first U.S. woman to land triple axel since Tonya Harding
One of the most daunting technical elements in ladies figure skating, where quadruple jumps are rare, is the triple axel. This is a unique jump element in which a skater jumps facing forward and lands moving backward — requiring not three rotations, but three and a half.
A handful of women have landed this jump throughout history, the first of the United States being the infamous Tonya Harding.
The torch has now been passed to Mirai Nagasu of Team USA who, despite often two-footing the landing, is capable of performing this difficult jump and will attempt to do so twice at the Olympics.
Top ice dance teams battle for gold
Ice dance has perhaps some of the thinnest margins between competitors among the top teams.
French ice dancers Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaime Cizeron frequently face off with Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. These top teams often trade off victories, but at the Olympics, Maia and Alex Shibutani of the United States will attempt to overcome them.
The gap is narrow enough that anything can happen, making ice dance one of the most exciting Olympic events of the year.
Pair skaters to represent North Korea
Pair skaters Ryom Tae-ok, 18, and Kim Ju-Sik, 25, are the only North Korean athletes to qualify for the 2018 Winter Games, which they accomplished earlier this season at the Nebelhorn Trophy.
The two are unlikely to make the podium, but their presence carries political importance regardless. An appealing routine set to The Beatles’ Blackbird, will certainly leave an impression on the audience.
While North Korea failed to confirm the skaters’ participation by the proper deadline, Tae-ok and Ju-sik were welcomed to participate anyway.
“That I could make our supporters happy, brought me the greatest happiness,” Ryom told NBC.