As the skaters twirl, subplots are bound to unfold in the 2005 State Farm U.S. Figure Skating Championships running Sunday through Jan. 16 at the Rose Garden and Memorial Coliseum:

Is Goebel ready? Timothy Goebel, 24, an Olympic bronze medalist in 2002, has been dealing with back and other problems since 2003. He withdrew from last year's U.S. championships because of equipment problems brought on by multiple changes in his feet, legs, hips and back, doctors say. He withdrew from the Marshalls World Cup of Figure Skating in November because of back problems, a couple of weeks after doctors said six out-of-place vertebrae caused upper-back spasms during an event in France.

If healthy, the Illinois native surely can challenge Johnny Weir and Michael Weiss Ñ he placed first once (2001), second three times and third once in the previous five U.S. championships, and finished second in the world in 2002 and 2003.

In Nick(s) of time? Sasha Cohen, Michelle Kwan's rival, switched coaches late last month, moving from New York City to train in her native California under former mentor John Nicks. 'Mr. Nicks' style of coaching really forces you to motivate yourself,' Cohen, 20, said at the time. Cohen placed second in the 2004 U.S. and world championships.

Cohen also has suffered from back pain, but she placed third in the Marshalls event. Says Nicks: 'I think we're going to come to nationals in good shape.'

Cohen is Kwan's stiffest competition here and, perhaps, for 2006 Olympic glory. Could she follow in the footsteps of Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes, and prevent Kwan from winning Olympic gold in Italy?

Ñ Jason Vondersmith

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