Russia's Tuktamysheva aims to finish near-perfect season with gold at figure skating worlds


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SHANGHAI — Russian teenager Elizaveta Tuktamysheva is looking to cap a dominant season with a gold medal at the world figure skating championships starting Wednesday in China, while Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner are attempting to bring home an individual medal for the American women for the first time in nearly a decade.

In the men's event, Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan returns to the Shanghai arena where he was bloodied in a frightening collision with another skater several months ago to defend his title against chief rivals Javier Fernandez of Spain and Denis Ten of Kazakhstan.

Despite being at the tail end of an exhausting season, the 18-year-old Tuktamysheva is the heavy favorite in the ladies' competition after sweeping to victory at the European Championships and Grand Prix Finals.

Overall, she has won seven of the nine events she's entered this season — a year after failing to make the Russian team for the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Besides the fatigue factor, the main question for Tuktamysheva is whether she decides to attempt a triple axel she's been working on in practice.

"I hope that after the European championships, I've managed to recharge my batteries," she told Russia's R-Sport agency last week. "It seems like I've got myself psychologically prepared, so I'm not feeling too much tiredness just yet. My body understands that there's no choice and that it's got to work."

Her main competition could come from 16-year-old countrywoman, Elena Radionova, who handed Tuktamysheva her only two defeats this season at Skate America and the Russian championships. She also fell just short of capturing her first European title in January, finishing second to Tuktamysheva by less than a point.

Gold and Wagner head a strong American squad that will be looking for its first worlds medal since Kimmie Meissner and Sasha Cohen finished first and third, respectively, in 2006.

Gold has struggled with her form since pulling out of the Grand Prix Finals in December with a stress fracture in her foot. She failed to defend her title at the U.S. Championships, finishing second to Wagner, and then turned in a poor performance at the Four Continents Championships in South Korea, placing fourth at a competition she was favored to win.

"It was a disappointment, just because I set high expectations for myself," the 19-year-old Gold told reporters via telephone before departing for Shanghai. "I just kind of crumbled under my own pressure."

"I've just been sort of all over the place this year," she added. "I just need to finish the season on a really good note at the world championships."

Wagner, the 23-year-old veteran of the team, is coming off a career-rejuvenating performance at the U.S. nationals, where she produced a flawless long program to capture her third title. She believes the U.S. is in good position to get back on the podium.

"It's just a natural process for different countries to be stronger at different times," she said. "For the U.S., it's uncommon to have such a long drought, but I think we now finally have a very talented field we are sending to worlds."

On the men's side, the 20-year-old Hanyu will be competing for the first time since undergoing surgery on his bladder to alleviate abdominal pain in late December.

His season began in dramatic fashion with a scary accident at the Cup of China in November when he crashed into Chinese skater Yan Han during warm-ups. His head wrapped in gauze, Hanyu recovered to finish second and went on to win the Grand Prix Finals weeks later.

In his absence from competition, however, Fernandez and Ten have emerged as serious threats to take the gold in Shanghai, with the Spaniard capturing the European Championships for the third straight year and the Kazakh skater taking the title at Four Continents.

Also in the field are Russian Maxim Kovtun, who has two quads in his short program and is the only man to win two Grand Prix events this season, as well as Americans Joshua Farris, second at Four Continents, and Jason Brown, the reigning U.S. champion.

Canada is favored in both the pairs and ice dancing events.

In the pairs, Meagan Duhamel and Eric Redford are undefeated this season, having captured titles at the Grand Prix Finals and Four Continents.

Their toughest competition will likely come from European champions Yuko Kavaguti and Alexander Smirnov of Russia, and the Chinese pair of Peng Cheng and Zhang Hao.

In ice dancing, Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje also come to Shanghai undefeated, with five titles in five international events this season.

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