BOSTON — It was among the more riveting moments in Olympic history.
With her sprained left ankle wrapped in a heavy bandage, U.S. gymnast Kerri Strug had no choice but to land her second vault to clinch the coveted team gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games. So Strug clenched her jaw, ran full throttle down the runway, propelled herself over the apparatus, stuck the landing and immediately pulled her foot up because the pain was so searing.
Her jubilant coach carried her off in his arms, a pint-sized conquering heroine whose grit won Olympic gold and made household names of the 1996 U.S. gymnastics team, forever known as the Magnificent Seven.
That's the kind of magic that figure-skating hopes to capture in adding a new discipline — the team medal — to the Olympic Games in Sochi.
“I think the more skating, the better,” said David Raith, executive director of U.S. Figure Skating, Thursday at Boston's TD Garden, where the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships got underway in earnest.
This time last year, Raith boldly predicted that the United States would win gold in the inaugural team event. But given the strong showing by skaters from Canada and Japan on the international stage this past season, Raith has tempered that projection, saying that he felt U.S. skaters would finish atop the podium and should contend for gold.
Ten countries qualified to compete for the team medal in Sochi — Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Ukraine and the United States.
In the format, each team will designate one man, one woman, one pair and one dance couple to compete their short programs on Feb. 6, the day before the Opening Ceremonies, with points awarded for each performance. The five countries with the lowest combined totals will be eliminated.
The five top-scoring countries will then send out a skater or skating duo in each of the four disciplines to perform their long programs on Feb. 8 and 9. Countries will be allowed to make substitutions, choosing a different skater to compete the long program. The countries with the top combined points win gold, silver and bronze, accordingly.
Canada's strength is the men's and ice dance disciplines, with three-time and defending world champion Patrick Chan the favorite for the men's gold medal and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir reigning Olympic champions in dance.
Japan is strong in singles, boasting 2010 Olympic silver medalist Mao Asada and a deep field of top-ranked men.
And the United States expects strong performances from its women, particularly Ashley Wagner, who is seeking her third consecutive U.S. championship here, and ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the 2010 Olympic silver medalists.
Not all skaters are happy about the decision to contest the Olympic team medal before the individual events they've trained for most of their lives.
But Wagner, 22, is “all in,” brushing off suggestions that helping the United States win a team medal could tire her out, risk injury or otherwise compromise her goal of a women's medal, assuming she's named to the Sochi-bound team on Sunday, as expected.
“I think this is only going to enhance my Olympic experience,” Wagner said of the team event this week. “It's an extra opportunity to get onto that Olympic ice and kind of get your feet wet. With the camaraderie that exists on the team, I think it'll be so cool to go out and compete with your friends.”
With less than one month to go before Sochi, the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships serves two purposes: To crown national champions in women's, men's, pairs and ice dance and to settle the Sochi-bound Olympic team.
The 15-skater roster will be announced Sunday, consisting of three women's singles skaters, two men, three ice-dance couples and two pairs. The United States has won at least one Olympic figure-skating medal at every Olympics since 1948.
After Thursday's pairs short programs, Boston-area favorite Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir stood in first place (73.13 points), followed by Felicia Zhang and Nathan Bartholomay (66/50.)
Earlier Thursday, Maryland natives Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter won the silver medal in the junior ice dance competition. McNamara, 13, is from Germantown; Carpenter, 16, from Wheaton. And siblings Rachel and Michael Parsons of Rockville, Md., who are 16 and 18 respectively, claimed the bronze medal.