Cohen wildcard in U.S. Olympic skating picture

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Sasha Cohen will play the wildcard at the U.S. figure skating championships this month when she returns to competition after three years in a bid to earn selection for the Vancouver Olympics.

Cohen, a silver medalist at the Turin Winter Games, has not skated competitively since a third place at the 2006 world championships and has seen her return stalled by tendonitis in her right calf.

The lack of competition has caused some of Cohen's fellow skaters to wonder if the 25-year-old will follow through on her comeback.

"I'm skeptical, I don't know about anyone else," said Ashley Wagner, who will be battling for one of the two women's spots in the U.S. team for Vancouver.

"I think it would be very hard to have your first competition be nationals but I am not counting her out.

"I don't think she will show up unprepared ... she's extremely talented and I don't think anyone would want to get themselves into that unless they were ready to go for it.

"It might make things more difficult but then again all the top girls right now have been competing under the new scoring system for some time.

"We have experience with it and I think that will work in our favor.

"But she's still part of the equation; if she's there she's there. If she's not she's not.

U.S. figure skating told Reuters there was no reason not to expect Cohen would be in Spokane.

The U.S. have been limited to just two spots in the women's competition because of poor results at last year's world championships and competition is expected to be fierce.

Alissa Czisny, 22, will be back to defend her crown from 16-year-old challengers Mirai Nagasu, the 2008 national champion and Caroline Zhang, the 2007 junior world champion.

Rachel Flatt, the runner-up at the last two nationals, Emily Hughes, sister of 2002 Olympic champion Sarah Hughes and Cohen also rank high among the contenders.

"Nationals are huge, it decides whether or not we go to the Olympics, it's basically deciding whether your dreams come true or not," Wagner said during a conference call on Monday.

"If Sasha does show up than that is just another factor we will have to add into the equation.

"The only think I can really do is focus on myself and skate as best as I can."

(Writing by Steve Keating in Toronto; editing by Greg Stutchbury)