SOCHI, Russia — Every time Yuna Kim has taken the ice in Sochi, the cameras have been flickering at Olympic-record speeds. Kim, known to her many fans worldwide as "Queen Yuna," is competing in what she said will be her final Olympics, and some believe she will win her second gold medal.
But as soon as you are ready to plan the queen's second coronation, you realize there's Julia Lipnitskaia. The ridiculously flexible 15-year-old became the darling of the Winter Games, having helped guide Russia to the team gold medal.
Then there's Mao Asada of Japan. If she can land a triple axel, the 2010 silver medalist could vault to the top of the podium.
There's also Italy's Carolina Kostner. Although she is erratic, she has earned five world medals and was the world champion in 2012. Could 2014 be her year?
Not to mention the American contingent, which includes Ashley Wagner, who has finished third and second in the past two ISU Grand Prix finals, Gracie Gold, whose free skate helped lead the U.S. team to a bronze medal in the team event, and Polina Edmunds, a 15-year-old who has two triple triples in her long program.
It is a packed crowd in the women's figure skating competition set for Wednesday and Thursday. Although Kim and Lipnitskaia are considered the front-runners, there is no such thing as a guarantee for an Olympic gold medal in this sport.
"The ladies' field here is so deep," said Michelle Kwan, a two-time Olympic medalist and five-time world champion who is in Sochi working with Fox Sports 1. "You look at Yuna, and if she does every element in her program I think she has the edge. But then there's Julia, and her program has the same elements as Gracie's."
Kimmie Meissner, an Olympian who placed sixth in Turin in 2006 and went on to win the world title that same year, called the depth in the women's event "amazing."
"So many of the competitors have triple triples," said Meissner, the Bel Air, Md., native who is in Sochi working for NBC. "It's not even a question whether the top lady will do one. And there isn't just one country coming in with a strong force. The Japanese team is strong, the Russian team is strong, the Americans, etc. So instead of just looking at one skater and saying, 'They are going to win it,' you have to look at an entire team and think all of their skaters can potentially step up."
There were naysayers for Kim leading up to the 2013 world championships mainly because she had skipped the Grand Prix series of international competitions. But then she arrived in London, Ontario, and in a workmanlike way, won the world crown. She has competed twice since, at one smaller international event and at South Korean nationals, and has the ability to make quick work of the competition in Sochi.
Ever since she flew in from Seoul, she has looked solid in practices. Her jumps are as huge as ever, and although she cannot match Lipnitskaia with her spins, Kim is displaying remarkable consistency and is not ready to hand over the throne.
Should Kim win the gold medal, she would be the first woman to claim back-to-back Olympic titles since Katarina Witt did so in 1984 and 1988. Sonja Henie won three in a row for Norway in 1928, 1932 and 1936.
"Previous athletes have won two times in a row, but it was a different time and it was very different," Kim said after her first practice in Sochi. "It means a lot for me to take part in the Olympics."
Kim seems to come to these Winter Games seeking some closure to her career. Even though the 2018 Olympics will be in her home country of South Korea, she said, Sochi will be her last Olympic trip as a competitor.
The Russians have never had a woman win an Olympic gold medal, but history could be rewritten with the Winter Games on Russian soil. In addition to Lipnitskaia, the Russians sent Adelina Sotnitkova, a four-time Russian national champion and two-time European silver medalist. She beat Lipnitskaia in the short program last month at Europeans but was a runner-up overall. The Russian women left Sochi after the team competition and have been in Moscow for practice sessions since.
Meanwhile, Asada is trying to improve on her silver medal performance from four years ago. She still has a triple axel in her program but also a triple flip-triple loop.
"In Vancouver, there was tension throughout my time there," Asada said. "Now, because it's my second time, it almost doesn't feel like the Olympics. I'm nervous, but feel secure about myself, so I'm looking forward to it. I love being back on this grand stage."
The Americans are hoping to have a woman land on the Olympic medal podium after being shut out of the medals in Vancouver. (Mirai Nagasu placed fourth.)
At the start of the season, Wagner appeared to be the top medal contender from the United States, but she struggled at nationals, falling twice in the free skate and finishing fourth. Still, an international committee selected her for the U.S. Olympic Team, a decision based on her breadth of international performances but one that caused controversy.
She came to Sochi and helped lead the Americans to a bronze medal in the team event, but she was disappointed in her marks for her short program and now her "not impressed" a la McKayla Maroney photo has become an Internet sensation.
"What you see is what you get," said Wagner, who graduated from West Potomac High School. "If I'm sad, I'm sad. If I'm happy, I'm happy. You will always get the true story with me. I haven't mastered sitting and smiling."
Gold, meanwhile, comes to Sochi with the most momentum of any of the American women. Her season began shakily as she lost an early competition and her jumps seemed off. She dropped her coach in Illinois and moved with her mother and twin sister to Southern California so she could train with Frank Carroll, the coach who guided Evan Lysacek to the gold medal in Vancouver.
She went on to win nationals and appears to be an entirely different skater from what she was just months ago.
"It's always great to have an experienced guide on this journey," Gold said. "He's been a rock these past couple of months. He's never thrown off or surprised about anything. He's so calm; he's been a great influence.
"2014 has been all about momentum," Gold said. "I'm just trying to keep the mojo going."
Last, but certainly not least, is Polina Edmunds. She was the surprise at nationals, winning a silver medal and making the Olympic team even though she had competed internationally only at the junior level. Edmunds, a high school sophomore from the Bay Area, is coached by David Glynn and by her mother, Nina Edmunds.
Nina Edmunds is a Russian native who grew up in Tver. For the Edmundses, coming to Sochi is a homecoming of sorts.
Polina arrived here under the radar but hopes to fly over it.
"The excitement isn't really around me right now," Edmunds said. "I can't wait to show everyone, and the crowd and the judges, what I can do."