Watch this: Your guide to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Ashley Wagner
Defending ladies champion Ashley Wagner is looking for her fourth national figure skating title.
Xiaolu Chu | Getty Images 2015

It's almost time for the main event at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Nationals kicked off last week with competition in the juvenile, intermediate, novice and junior levels.

On Thursday night, championship contests begin at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. First up: The short programs in the pairs and ladies events. Friday will bring the short dance in ice dancing and the short program in the men's competition.

Champions will be crowned in pairs and ice dancing Saturday afternoon. The premier event, the ladies free skate, is Saturday night.

The last event of the series on Sunday afternoon will determine the men's champion.

Here's a guide to who and what to watch.

It's not an Olympic year. How important are these championships?

The Winter Games aren't for another two years, but that doesn't mean skaters can take it easy. Right now, it's about momentum and establishing themselves as medal contenders.

In 2008 — the last time the championships were in St. Paul — the men's champion, Evan Lysacek, went on to win the gold at the 2010 Olympics. And in ice dancing, the team of Meryl Davis and Charlie White placed second but took home the silver medal in Vancouver. They won it all in 2014 at the Sochi games.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White
Meryl Davis and Charlie White were second in the ice dance competition at the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. But they went on to win silver at the 2010 games and took home gold in 2014.
Matthew Stockman | Getty Images 2014

Every year, the national championships serve as the final qualifying competition before U.S. Figure Skating names its team for the world championships. Team USA will send three ladies, three men, three ice dance teams and two pairs teams to the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships March 28 through April 3 in Boston.

Ladies

Defending champion Ashley Wagner is skating for her fourth title. She's got a good shot at it, but standing in her way is 2014 champion Gracie Gold. Most expect one of the two to win the ladies title this year.

(On the Gold front, keep your eyes peeled for a possible Taylor Swift sighting. The superstar could make an appearance to cheer on Gold, who is part of the singer's ever-expanding squad.)

Gracie Gold
Gracie Gold could win her second ladies title in St. Paul. She was the national champion in 2014.
Toru Yamanaka | AFP | Getty Images 2015

Others in the hunt include Mirai Nagasu, the 2008 champion; Polina Edmunds (a 2014 Olympian) and Karen Chen (third at last year's nationals).

Men's

This is perhaps the most wide-open championships event: Two of last year's medalists withdrew because of injuries. Reigning champion Jason Brown and bronze medalist Joshua Farris have been sidelined by a respective back strain and concussion.

Watch for 2013 national champion Max Aaron or Nathan Chen, the Junior Grand Prix Final champ, to make a play for the podium, as well as two-time U.S. silver medalist Adam Rippon.

Max Aaron
Max Aaron could add a second men's national title to his resume if he wins in St. Paul.
Elise Amendola | AP 2014

Minnesota also has three locals competing in this event: Alexander Johnson of Minnetonka, Daniel Kulenkamp of Mahtomedi and Robert Przepioski of the Rochester Figure Skating Club.

Ice dancing

Ice dancing is finally getting its due after years taking a back seat to the other disciplines. It's now the one consistently producing Olympic and World medalists (see: Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto; and Meryl Davis and Charlie White).

Put Madison Chock and Evan Bates on that list. They won their first U.S. title last year and then went on to the win the silver medal at world's.

ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships 2
Madison Chock and Evan Bates look to repeat as ice dancing national champions.
Chung Sung-Jun | Getty Images 205

They face off against another couple on that list, Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani — the "Shib Sibs" — who won the bronze medal at the 2011 world championships. They've stood on the podium at each of their trips to nationals as seniors (three times as silver medalists and twice as bronze medalists).

Looking to improve on their third-place finish last year are Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue.

Pairs

Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim skate to defend their title this week. Watch for their quad twist — they're the only American team performing that element in competition.

Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim
Alexa Scimeca, top, and Chris Knierim will try to defend their pairs title this week at nationals.
Goh Chai Hin | AFP | Getty Images

Other top teams include Tarah Kayne and Daniel O'Shea, the reigning U.S. bronze medalists, and Madeline Aaron and Max Settlage, who placed fourth last year.

Watch for Chelsea Liu, of the St. Paul Figure Skating Club, in this event with her partner, Brian Johnson.

Can I watch it on television?

NBC will provide live coverage of championship-level events starting Saturday:

• 2-5 p.m., pairs free skate and free dance

• 7-10 p.m., ladies free skate (live)

• Sunday: 3-5 p.m., men's free skate (live)

Can I meet the skaters?

Grab your skates, posters, a scrap of paper — you name it, because select athletes will be holding court outside Section 124 during autograph sessions, starting Friday.

The top four championship pairs and ice dance teams after the short program and short dance, respectively, will be available at 6:45 p.m. Friday.

On Saturday, the top four men after the short program will be on hand starting at 5:15 p.m.

And on Sunday, the championship ladies medalists will sign autographs starting at 12:30 p.m.

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