Russian Woman Favored for Figure Skating Gold

The Winter Olympics marquee event — women's figure skating — begins on Tuesday. American Sasha Cohen is a medal contender, but the favorite for the gold is Russia's Irina Slutskaya. Renee Montagne talks to USA Today columnist Christine Brennan, who's covering the event in Turin, Italy.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The marquee event of the Winter Olympics gets underway tonight. The Women's Figure Skating competition begins with the short program. The Free Skate is Thursday. Last night, in ice dancing, the U.S. figure skating team won its medal of the Turin Olympics.

USA Today columnist Christine Brennan has been watching the competition, and she joins me now from Turin.

Now, Christine, the last time the U.S. won an Olympic medal in Ice Dancing, Gerald Ford was the president.

Ms. CHRISTINE BRENNAN (Columnist, USA Today): That's right, Renee. Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, young ice dancers, looking ahead to probably one, or maybe two more Olympics games, trained in Detroit. They won the Silver Medal, an improbably silver medal in ice dance, finally breaking into the old Eastern bloc of dominance in the ice dance. The last time was a bronze medal 30 years ago, as you said, for the U.S. This was a silver medal. And the interesting thing is, Tanith Belbin is well known to many, because she just became a U.S. citizen 51 days ago. So, she's accomplished a lot, especially as she watched that U.S. flag go up, and had a tear as a new American, and an incredible performance last night.

MONTAGNE: And looking ahead at tonight's women's competition, American Sasha Cohen is in contention for a medal. What does she need to do to challenge for the gold?

Ms. BRENNAN: Renee, she needs to do something that she's never done before. And that is, skate a clean short program, and a clean long program together in the same competition. Sasha Cohen is 21, one of the great stories of unfulfilled potential in U.S. Olympic sports. It's all there sitting there waiting for her tonight, if she can start the process and skate a clean program. It's just a matter of concentration, this great talent, putting it together and doing all the elements, she'll certainly be in contention for a medal if she does that.

MONTAGNE: And what about Russian, Irina Slutskaya, why is she the favorite?

Ms. BRENNAN: She's on a roll. I mean, if you use the old sports term, momentum, Irina Slutskaya, 27-years-old from Moscow, she's got that momentum, Renee. Irina Slutskaya has battled so many things the last few years: vasculitis, her mom is on dialysis, there's been a lot of hardships. And I think, actually, it helps Slutskaya's skating, because she realizes that what's going on, on the ice, is not the only thing in her life, that she has far more things to worry about; probably makes her skate better. Won the silver medal in Salt Lake City four years ago behind Sarah Hughes. Slutskaya believes this is her medal to win, which, of course, the process starts here tonight.

MONTAGNE: And talk to us about who else is in contention.

Ms. BRENNAN: There are a lot of people in contention. I haven't seen a field this deep in women's figure skating in a long time. Certainly, you have to look to the Japanese, Fumie Suguri, Shizuka Arakawa, two names that could easily medal. Carolina Kostner of Italy, and then young American, Kimmie Meissner, just 16 years old. The last three Olympic gold medallists, Renee, have been 16 or 15. Kimmie Meissner is right in that age to maybe do something here.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, just about America's most famous name in this competition, Michelle Kwan dropped out before even competing. Her replacement is Emily Hughes. What's up with her?

Ms. BRENNAN: I'd think the best thing for Emily Hughes, Renee, would be a top ten finish. She's not the skater that some of the others we've just been talking about are. But she's got great enthusiasm, and a gamer. She'll stand up. She will not make too many mistakes. So, if everyone else starts falling, which we certainly saw in the ice dance the other day, Emily Hughes could be standing there in sixth, seventh, eighth place, something like that. That would be a great finish for her.

MONTAGNE: Christine, thanks very much.

Ms. BRENNAN: Thanks, Renee.

BRAND: Christine Brennan is a columnist for USA Today, speaking to us from the Winter Olympics in Turin.

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