Olympics 2022: Nathan Chen, the Russian women -- who to watch in Olympic figure skating

Nathan Chen has won six U.S. national titles -- and is a favorite to win Olympic gold in Beijing. Sarah Stier/Getty Images

All eyes will be on Nathan Chen as the Winter Olympics' marquee event kicks off Friday in Beijing (Thursday night ET). Will he top Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu in an epic rematch? Can anyone stop the Russian women from sweeping the podium? Here's what you need to know as figure skating gets underway in Beijing.

Team event: Where true depth is shown

First up is the team event, where Team USA has taken bronze at the past two Games and should land on the podium again. In the short program, the 10 qualified countries send out one contestant for each of the four disciplines (men's, women's, pairs, ice dance). The top five countries then compete in the free skate.

Expect many countries to switch up their men between the short program and the free skate, because the men's individual competition is the next event.

Figure skating can be an intensely individual sport. The team event, by contrast, has a lively, congenial atmosphere. And for U.S. skaters unlikely to medal in their individual events, it's their best shot to leave Beijing with some hardware.

Men's: A rivalry for the ages

"Redemption" often gets tossed around when describing Nathan Chen's return to the Olympics after an unexpected fifth-place finish in 2018. But the 21-year-old skater doesn't see it that way. "Not at all," he told ESPN. "This is a completely new experience, completely separate from the last event."

Chen might have put Pyeongchang behind him, but there's no question the duel between him and Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu, the two-time reigning gold medalist, is the most exciting matchup in this year's figure skating lineup. Both men are considered two of the greatest men's figure skaters ever.

Looking back at 2018, Chen says he had "no sense of excitement" after making the Olympic team, "only a sense of dread," and that fear carried into the Games and affected his performance. "I just didn't know how to overcome that," he said.

This time, he goes to Beijing with a more positive mindset. "I'm definitely not going in with a perspective of, I'm just here to win. I'm there to do the best I can. If I win, I win. If I don't, I don't. Being able to take that mentality is much healthier."

Often called the Quad King, Chen helped usher in a new era in men's figure skating. Funnily enough, he says he can no longer do the easier double jumps, simply because he never does them. "If you asked me to do a double flip, oh gosh, I don't know," he said with a smile.

The six-time U.S. champion has been dominant since Pyeongchang. He has beaten Hanyu in every head-to-head contest and lost only one competition in four years. That was Skate America, where he finished third to Team USA compatriot Vincent Zhou and 2018 Olympic silver medalist Shoma Uno (also from Japan), both of whom are expected to challenge for the podium in Beijing.

But Hanyu, 27, has a potential ace up his sleeve. Though he's been sidelined by an ankle injury for most of the season, Hanyu attempted the seemingly impossible at Japanese nationals in December: a quad axel. The top-level men have been doing four-rotation jumps for many years now, but the quad axel requires four-and-a-half rotations, a feat no one has ever landed in competition. Hanyu got tantalizingly close and may very well try again in Beijing.

If he lands it, expect pandemonium.

Women's: Russian dominance

If you've watched any figure skating lately, you'll likely have heard commentators Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski gushing about the Russian women. Their three Olympians -- Kamila Valieva, Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova -- emerged from a DEEP field of Russian skaters. Eight (!) of them could have made the Olympic team and likely podiumed, but each country is allowed only three competitors max.

Valieva, 15, is undefeated in her first senior season and the gold-medal favorite. Shcherbakova, 17, is the 2021 world champion and looked like the one to beat until Valieva burst onto the scene. Trusova, 17, was the first woman to land quads. (Now, all three Russian women are doing them!) The trio are coached by Eteri Tutberidze, whose skaters Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva finished one-two in 2018. The Russians have a real chance of sweeping the podium -- which would be the first time any country has done that in women's skating.

Valieva has broken record after record this season. Weir recently called her skating "the diamond standard," and she's regularly described as "perfect" or "flawless." If there's one skater to watch, it's her.

Among those hoping for the Russians to slip up are two-time Japanese champion Kaori Sakamoto and two-time U.S. champion Alysa Liu. Liu is the only American skater with the jumps, including the triple axel, that could put her in contention.

Ice dance: Expect the unexpected

Four years ago, French ice dance team Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron narrowly lost to Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir after a wardrobe malfunction during their short dance. Now, they are back as favorites to claim gold. They will be pushed by their training partners, U.S. teams Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, who are in their final season, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates. (Many of the world's top ice dance teams, regardless of nationality, train together at the Ice Academy of Montreal.) Russians Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, the 2021 world champs, will look to spoil the party.

There will be spectacular lifts and dazzling twizzles. And if you think ice dance is always two people gliding to classical music, check out Chock and Bates' free dance. She plays an alien, he's an astronaut and they fall in love over the course of four minutes, soundtracked by Daft Punk.

Pairs: The Russians vs. the home team

Host country China will duke it out with Russia for the medals here. Chinese team Sui Wenjing and Han Cong will look to upgrade their 2018 silver medal on home soil, but face a stiff challenge from​​ three Russian teams -- 2022 Russian champions Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov, 2021 Russian champions Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov, and 2020 Russian champions Aleksandra Boikova and Dmitrii Kozlovskii.

Only one of Team USA's four pairs skaters has been to an Olympics before. Alexa Knierim finished 15th in Pyeongchang with her partner (and husband) Chris Knierim. He retired in 2020, while she returns to Beijing with a new partner, Brandon Frazier.