Is 5-foot Courtney Hicks the next big thing in U.S. skating?
Here we are at the first major national event after the Olympics, when everyone's thoughts turn toward finding the next big thing (who usually is rather small) in U.S. women's figure skating.
The place everyone looks first is the junior women's event -- yes, you can call it the girls' event without being sexist -- at the U.S. Championships.
Anyone who did that this week would have been dazzled by the performances of 15-year-old Courtney Hicks from Chino Hills. She skated far bigger than her 5-feet, 93 pounds to earn a runaway triumph and the highest women's score since the juniors began using the Code of Points system in 2006.
"She came to this nationals without anyone knowing who she is,'' said John Nicks, her coach. "She is not leaving that way.''
Of course, using juniors as a measuring stick can be a tricky business. Five-time world champion and two-time Olympic medalist Michelle Kwan never won a junior title (yes, I realize she was skating seniors by age 12, but she was ninth in juniors.) Neither did three-time world medalist and 2006 Olympic runner-up Sasha Cohen. Nor did Peggy Fleming, Tara Lipinski or Dorothy Hamill, Olympic champions all.
Do the names Sydne Vogel or Sara Wheat ring any bells? Didn't think so. But Wheat beat Cohen for the junior title in one post-Olympic year (1999), and Vogel beat the heavily hyped Lipinski in another (1995). And how about 2003 winner Erika Archambault, one of 10 young women soon forgotten after finishing ahead of eventual Olympian Emily Hughes in that post-Olympic-year junior meet?
But what happened in the last post-Olympic season makes it worth giving Hicks' situation a further look -- as did her flawless triple-triple jump combinations in the short and long programs, her rafter-rattling split jump, her speed across the ice and overall physical skills that the 81-year-old Nicks said have made her the most athletic skater he ever has taught.
"She is very athletic and fearless, and the combination of those two gives you something,'' Nicks said after Hicks won the title Wednesday night. "She rotates faster in the air than anyone I've ever had, and she doesn't seem to have any nerves, at least for now. She does have a lot to learn as far as presentation.''
Now let's couch that in terms of the 2007 junior competition, which illustrates the perils of prediction and the fun of seeing a revelation.
Four years ago, 13-year-old Caroline Zhang was the can't-miss skater. She came to 2007 nationals having dominated the international Junior Grand Prix circuit.
Another 13-year-old, Mirai Nagasu, arrived at that meet as a near-unknown. A year earlier, she had failed to advance past the first level of qualifying for the novice competition.
Nagasu beat Zhang for the junior title, got second at the ensuing World Junior Championships and went on to win the senior title in 2008 and finish fourth in the 2010 Olympics. Nagasu is among the favorites for the senior title this week.
Zhang also is competing here, but she is an afterthought, having struggled badly the last two seasons, bottoming out with an 11th at nationals a year ago.
Hicks had been only fifth in novice nationals a year ago. Now she might follow the same course as Nagasu. (For what it's worth, Hicks had significantly higher presentation scores than Nagasu in 2007.)
"It's interesting to think I could go on the same path as her,'' Hicks said. "I would kind of like to do better at the Olympics.''
Nagasu, you may recall, did pretty darn well. So you can add confident to fast and fearless for Hicks, who turned 15 only six weeks ago.
She is a home-schooled (by Internet) ninth-grader who has had her own website for a couple of years, no matter that it seemed to be getting the Zamboni ahead of the horse after her underwhelming performance at 2010 novice nationals.
"I got a lot more focused after last year,'' she said. "My jumps are a lot more consistent.''
Hicks also decided to make Nicks her primary coach this season. A year ago, he was trying to help Cohen make the OIympics after three years away from competition. Cohen did not earn one of the two spots but finished a respectable fourth at nationals.
Cohen, now back to skating shows, trains at the same rink as Hicks, whom she has helped work on the triple flip jump. Cohen also pitched in with one of her old skating dresses when Nicks delicately told Hicks' mother, who has been her dressmaker, that the skater needed something different for her short program at nationals -- coincidentally skated to "Dark Eyes,'' music Cohen used in her first-place short program at the 2006 Olympics.
My colleague, Christine Brennan of USA Today, said to Nicks, "It's nice they are the same size.''
"I hope they stay the same size,'' Nicks replied.
The judges sized Hicks up with all positive grades in the short program but dinged her in Wednesday's free skate for wrong-edge takeoffs on her triple lutz jumps (that should be correctable when she gets stronger), a fall on the second triple lutz and a slightly under-rotated double loop at the end of a triple-double-double combination. The mistakes took little away from the overall impression of excellence.
Hicks hopes U.S. Figure Skating selects her for the upcoming Junior World Championships, a decision that depends on the performances in the senior event of some skaters still eligible for junior worlds, including Christina Gao, Yasmin Siraj and Kristiene Gong.
Skating at junior worlds would give Hicks a sense of where she stands against some of the other young skaters -- notably 14-year-old Russians Adelina Sotnikova and Elizaveta Tutamisheva, leaders of this year's Junior Grand Prix circuit -- who loom as top contenders for 2014 Olympic medals. Hicks did not get any Junior Grand Prix assignments because she was an also-ran as a novice.
It would be even more important for the U.S. federation to give Hicks some financial support. She is among three children of a family whose means are modest -- to wit, her mother as dressmaker. At the next level, even hand-me-downs from Cohen may not be enough, especially because everyone now will be looking closely at Hicks.
"I think I will be able to handle it,'' she said. "I have a good coach who has gone through a lot of this before.''
Indeed he has. And for those of us who cover the sport, it is a thoroughly delightful prospect to have the affable, ironic, droll Nicks as coach of a potential Olympian. He always is good for a story -- or 81 of them.
"This year, it is John Nicks with Courtney Hicks,'' he said. "Next year, it will be Courtney Hicks with John Nicks. After that, it will just be Courtney Hicks.''
That's a big statement.
Photo: Courtney Hicks, in one of Sasha Cohen's old dresses, winning Monday's short program in the junior event at the U.S. Championships. Photo provided by Michelle Harvath / U.S. Figure Skating