Sarah Hughes was hardly a stranger to the international scene when she arrived at the World Figure Skating Championships in 2001. She had a bronze medal from the Grand Prix Final and, if she wasn't in the same sentence with Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya, she was certainly in the conversation.

By finishing third at those all-important worlds the year before the Salt Lake City Games, however, Hughes upped her medal-contending credibility — with the judges, with other skaters and with the public.

A year later, she was the Olympic champion.

"Getting the third place was really a breakthrough for me there," Hughes recalled. "It was so hard and so difficult for me to get that third place. I was just fighting and fighting and fighting to try and get that recognition. ... It gave me a lot of confidence going into the summer because the summer before the Olympics is really, really important. It seems like you have a lot of time before the games, but you blink your eyes and it's here."

The world championships begin Wednesday in London, Ontario, and the main priority for skaters is to secure spots — several of them, preferably — for their country at next winter's Sochi Olympics. Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold have a tough task to get back the third spot that was once the birthright of U.S women, needing a combined placement of 13 or better (finishing fifth and eighth, for example). Same goes for Max Aaron and Ross Miner. It's even tougher for the American pairs, who might need to overachieve in their first world appearances just to hang on to two spots for Sochi.

The only discipline where the Americans are all but assured of having the maximum three spots in Sochi is ice dance. Meryl Davis and Charlie White have been trading the major titles with Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir since the Vancouver Olympics, and worlds isn't likely to be any different.

But positioning their country isn't the skaters' only concern. They need to position themselves, knowing that a title or a medal at the year-out worlds is often a springboard to Olympic success.

Just look at the history. The only skaters to become Olympic champions without already having been a medalist at worlds — and often, but not always, a world champion — were way back in 1920. And that was likely only because World War I had wiped out the world championships from 1915-1921.

"It was just solidifying where I was at," said Tara Lipinski, who followed her world title in 1997 with gold at the Nagano Olympics the next year. "I knew at the time if I came in 15th, winning the Olympics the next year — anything can happen the next year, anything's possible. But I'd say it's a little unlikely. Worlds the year before, what happens there is definitely going to make an impact for your next season."

While it's rare even for the Olympic silver and bronze medalists to reach the podium without having already done it at worlds, sometimes a solid performance is enough to propel skaters to Olympic glory. Timothy Goebel didn't win a medal at the 2001 world championships, but his fourth-place finish was a massive improvement from being 11th the year before and 12th in 1999.

A year later, Goebel was third in Salt Lake City, the first American man to win an Olympic medal since Paul Wylie claimed the silver in 1992.

Four years ago, Meryl Davis and Charlie White missed the bronze medal at the world championships by a mere 0.04 points. The next year in Vancouver, they won the silver medal. And the year after that, they became the first American dance team to win a world title.

"Obviously it's not like you have to prove yourself at the worlds before an Olympics if want to have any hope. But for your confidence, it's a big boost," White said. "We felt like we belonged. We had felt like we were chasing people and trying to get to the next level. After (the 2009) worlds, we felt like we belonged on the world stage and could compete with the world's best teams. That's really what you're striving for as a competitor is that feeling.

"Just the confidence you can get out of it is key."

And that confidence isn't limited to placements.

Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu wants to have two different quadruple jumps for Sochi, but waiting until next year to see if he can pull them off is too risky. So he's testing them out now. Hughes felt the same way about her triple-triple combinations, which she knew she had to have if she hoped to contend in Salt Lake City.

"Knowing you can do that is very, very important," she said. "So for the worlds that year, my focus was on really delivering those triple-triples. The medal was the icing on the cake."

The skaters who leave Ontario with medals, even titles, won't be guaranteed anything in Sochi, of course. But to step on the ice next February knowing you are the best in the world, even one of the three best in the world, can't be underestimated.

"I had been third in the world twice, I had been fourth in Torino," said Evan Lysacek, who won the world title in 2009 and then gold in Vancouver. "I wanted so badly to take that next step, to be on the top spot of the podium for the first time and to be able to call myself the best skater in the world.

"Did that help me win? Probably not," Lysacek said. "But it gave me a lot of momentum for sure heading into the Olympic season. And going into the Olympics I sure felt confident."


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