CLEVELAND - The women's competition is wide open, a new ice dance champion is a given, and the guy coming into the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on a hot streak isn't named Evan or Johnny.
So much for figure skating being predictable.
"We have tons of new talent. Obviously, it's been changing from one year to the next, but all sports do that. It's kind of more exciting to watch that way when you don't know who's going to come in and win the title," reigning men's champion Evan Lysacek said.
Lysacek was referring to the women's competition this week in Cleveland, but he just as easily could have been talking about the men or ice dance. With the Vancouver Olympics a little more than a year away, the only discipline where there's a clear front-runner in the United States is pairs.
Oh sure, Meryl Davis and Charlie White are expected to win their first title in ice dance this week. But put five-time champs Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto back in the mix, and things could have gotten interesting. The silver medalists at the Turin Olympics withdrew from nationals because of his back injury, but still plan to compete at the world championships in March in Los Angeles.
"I was very disappointed, because I think it would have made a great competition," said Igor Shpilband, who coaches Davis and White and who, until last spring, coached Belbin and Agosto.
"Who knows what would have happened? I don't want to speculate on that," Shpilband said. "But it definitely would have made the competition a lot more interesting."
Not to worry, there's still plenty of intrigue to be had.
The Americans have been looking for their next big female star since Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen unlaced their skates in 2006. Kimmie Meissner, the surprise world champion that year, hasn't been able to deliver, struggling last year and again through the Grand Prix series this season. She withdrew Monday with a hip flexor injury.
Rachael Flatt, Caroline Zhang and Mirai Nagasu all made a big splash on the junior scene. Zhang was the 2007 junior world champion, and Flatt succeeded her last year as the Americans went 1-2-3 for a second year in a row. Nagasu was the surprise winner at nationals last year — a year after pulling off an upset to win the U.S. junior title.
But they've yet to have the same success on the senior international scene.
Granted, Flatt, Zhang and Nagasu were too young to compete at last year's senior world championships. But all three competed in the senior Grand Prix series this year, and none qualified for the final.
Flatt came closest, finishing as the second alternate after winning the silver medal at the Cup of Russia. She was fourth in a tough Skate America field that featured two-time Grand Prix final champion Kim Yu-na and 2007 world champion Miki Ando.
"Considering what I did — my placements (in the Grand Prixs) compared to the other U.S. girls wasn't very good — I'm going into U.S. championships not as the champion but as one of the skaters who wants to show everyone she loves to skate," said Nagasu, who has been slowed by an ankle injury and was fifth at Skate America and eighth at NHK Trophy.
The stakes are high, too. This year's world championships determine how many spots countries get in Vancouver, and the United States has failed to send the maximum three women just once since 1924.
Because of the Americans' poor showing last year, they will send only two women to worlds. To hold on to three Olympic spots, those two skaters must finish with a combined placement of 13 (fifth and eighth, for example) or better.
"Just because they didn't qualify for the Grand Prix final does not mean our athletes aren't at the top level," said David Raith, U.S. Figure Skating's executive director.
For the last few years, U.S. men's skating has been, as Johnny Weir put it, the "Evan and Johnny Show." The two have combined to win the last five U.S. titles — Lysacek the last two, Weir the three before that — and they actually finished with the same score in a bizarre episode last year.
But Jeremy Abbott's surprise win at the Grand Prix final showed the American men are more than just Lysacek and Weir. Much more.
"This year, Evan lost to Ryan Bradley, who was (fifth) last year at our nationals, and I lost to Jeremy Abbott, who was (fourth)," Weir said. "So we're clearly not the only front-runners in America for this season."
Besides Abbott and Bradley, there is Adam Rippon, who made a clean sweep of the major junior titles last season: world, U.S. and Grand Prix final. Stephen Carriere was a respectable 10th at his first senior world championships after winning the bronze medal at the 2008 nationals.
Don't count out Brandon Mroz, either, who was second to Rippon as a junior at nationals and the Grand Prix final last year.
"There are at least 10 (skaters) that could be in the top three and earn a spot on to the world team," Weir said. "I think for skating fans it's the most exciting event because you never what's going to happen, you never know who's going to pull through and do well. I'm very proud of American skaters because we are so strong at the moment."
Defending pairs champs Keauna McLaughlin and Rockne Brubaker have made no secret they're looking beyond the United States, and with good reason. The 2007 junior world champs — she was too young for senior worlds last year — nearly qualified for a second straight Grand Prix final after winning a silver medal at Skate America and a bronze at Skate Canada.
They worked this season to strengthen their technical elements in hopes of closing the gap with the top international teams. They also added a second set of side-by-side triple jump, a triple toe loop.
"People could say, 'Oh, they won last year, they're the favorites.' When you're on top, I always look at it as you're the underdog because that means everyone else is trying to get to where you're at," Brubaker said.
"People are going to have to do a lot to get (the title) from us because we're going to show up and we might not be perfect, but we're going to put out everything we can possible in order to keep it."