It was no surprise the U.S. women swept the medals Saturday at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria.
After all, the U.S. team included the 1-2-4 finishers from the most competitive senior national championships in the world.
But the results, with Rachael Flatt sneaking out of the shadows to take the title from defending world junior champion Caroline Zhang and reigning U.S. champion Mirai Nagasu, mean there will be a ferocious battle for places on the U.S. team at the 2009 senior worlds in Los Angeles and the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Especially because the U.S. is likely to have only two women's places at the 2009 worlds. If that happens, there will be no margin of error to get three places at the 2010 Olympics.
Speaking via telephone from Sofia, each of the three medalists welcomed the challenge.
"This is a really good group of U.S. ladies,'' Zhang said. "The next two years will be tough but really fun too.''
Nagasu agreed. And she put the upcoming competition in a wider perspective.
"I think this will be really good for the U.S,'' she said, "and I hope it helps make the sport a lot more popular.''
Now, put former world champion Kimmie Meissner, reigning U.S. bronze medalist Ashley Wagner, 2006 Olympian Emily Hughes and 2007 world team member Alissa Czisny in the mix. If all skate to past capabilities, it will be ice wars at the 2009 U.S. Championships in Cleveland.
"I can't wait,'' Flatt said.
To get three senior world places, a country must have the placings of its top two finishers at the previous world meet add up to no more than 13 (if it has three entrants, that means one poor finish has no impact).
The U.S. team got 13 last year, when 2006 world champion Meissner was 4th, Hughes 9th and Czisny 15th.
The U.S. team going to senior worlds at Gothenburg, Sweden, later this month includes Meissner, battling a slump that left her dead last at the Grand Prix Final and seventh at the U.S. Championships; and world senior debutantes Wagner, 16, and Bebe Liang, 19.
Flatt, 15, and 14-year-olds Zhang and Nagasu all missed the minimum age cutoff for senior worlds.
Even if Meissner, 18, finds her old form after six weeks with new coach Richard Callaghan, she will be hard-pressed to make the world podium without flawed performances by one or more of the women who beat her last year: Miki Ando and Mao Asada of Japan and Kim Yu-Na of South Korea.
That means either Wagner or Liang would need a major upgrade from their poor skating two weeks ago at the Four Continents Championships, where Wagner was 8th and, Liang 11th.
No matter if all three remarkable world junior medalists skate brilliantly next year in Cleveland, one could miss the senior worlds because the team has only two places.
Until the last month, the odd young woman out appeared to be Flatt, quietly improving amidst the buzz created by Nagasu and Zhang since the 2007 U.S. Championships.
"It was actually kind of nice,'' Flatt said. "I didn't have that much attention, which was great. I think it helped me skate well.''
Saturday, Flatt skated better than she had all year, winning the free skate with strong jumping and overall consistency that overcame a nearly five-point deficit after the short program.
Flatt finished with 172.19 points, just .35 ahead of Zhang (171.84), who also delivered a strong free skate, but nearly 10 points ahead of Nagasu (162.89), the short program winner, who struggled with four jumps in the long program.
Flatt, a native of Del Mar, Calif., moved with her family to Colorado six years ago to train. She has spent the last four years working with Tom Zakrajsek in Colorado Springs.
She had won the free skate at both the U.S. Championships and Junior Grand Prix Final while finishing second to Nagasu in both.
Nagasu, of Arcadia, Calif., had sloppy landings on both triple lutz jumps, and her triple loop was judged as under-rotated. She said the mistakes were a "mental thing'' but also was bothered by knee soreness from a fall in practice 10 days ago.
Zhang, of Brea, Calif., 4th at nationals, was pleased to finish her season with good skating in both programs, even if she failed to become the first woman to win two junior world titles.
"My year had good parts and disappointing parts. I didn't want the year to end the way I skated at nationals,'' Zhang said.