Strategy comes into play for U.S. team figure skating picks

Fourth-Place Medal

Team figure skating is one of the events debuting at the Sochi Olympics.

The format is fairly simple. Ten countries qualified teams to compete. One lady, one man, one pair and one ice dance couple from each country will perform a short program (or short dance). Entrants will receive points according to their placements: 10 points for first place, nine points for second, all the way down to one point for 10th place.

The five countries with the most points will advance to the second round, where entrants will perform a free skate (or free dance). The country with the most points at the end of the second round wins gold. Skating powerhouses Canada, Russia and the United States should have no problems making the second round, but strategy comes into play when medals are on the line.

[ Gallery: Meet your Team USA figure skaters ]

Obviously, countries want to put their best athletes forward, but also need them to be rested and healthy for the individual events, which begin next week. Substitutions between the first and second rounds are permitted, but only in two disciplines. Team USA hopes its choices will maximize its chances for gold.

Here's how the team figure skating entries reportedly break down (the men's and pairs short selections were confirmed Wednesday):

Ladies short program: Ashley Wagner

Ladies free skate: Gracie Gold

Men's short program: Jeremy Abbott

Men's free skate: Jason Brown

Pairs (short program and free skate): Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir

Ice dance (short dance and free dance): Meryl Davis and Charlie White

The ice dance selection is a no-brainer. Davis and White are the reigning world champions and have been undefeated this season. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, they're guaranteed to place at least second in each round (their only real competition being reigning Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir) and will be Team USA's biggest point-earners. Castelli and Shnapir are the best U.S. pair, so it makes sense to have them skate twice as well.

The singles selections are more strategic. Ashley Wagner, who was controversially named to the Sochi team after a disappointing fourth-place finish at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, will skate in the short program. Aside from her slip-up at nationals, Wagner has skated clean short programs all season long. A mistake-free performance in Sochi will not only set the U.S. up nicely for the second round, but will also give Wagner a much-needed boost of confidence.

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Wagner's teammate Gracie Gold will reportedly be swapped in for the free skate. Critics would say Gold's a safer bet; a nervous Wagner fell twice in her free skate at the U.S. Championships, and more jumping passes (seven in the free skating versus three in short program) mean more opportunities for mistakes.

The substitution gives Gold a chance to skate against likely individual medal contenders from Canada, Japan and Russia (her last international competition was way back in November) as the reigning national champion. While it deprives Wagner the chance to test out her recently revamped free skate in front of judges, it gives both women a chance to skate on Olympic ice before the individual ladies event.

The men's selection is also strategic. With the quadruple jump separating the contenders from the rest of the field, Jeremy Abbott is the obvious choice for the short program. The reigning national champion landed a clean quadruple toe loop-triple toe loop in his short program at the U.S. Championships. If Abbott skates clean, he could rack up some major points.

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If figure skating were strictly jumps, it would make sense to enter Abbott for the free skate as well. His teammate Jason Brown is a sensational performer, but lacks a quadruple jump. However, with the program component score (artistic mark) having twice as much weight in the free skate, Brown has the possibility to really shine. The swap also allows Abbott a chance to rest before the men's individual event, and as is the case with Wagner and Gold, gives both men an early feel for the competition.

Having said that, the ice is slippery and the deadline for each round's entries is 24 hours before competition, so there might be even more jockeying around at the last minute. This is Olympic figure skating  and stranger things have been known to happen.

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