Top 10 US story lines to watch at Sochi Winter Olympics
The 2014 Winter Olympics are now officially underway. But let’s be honest, you haven’t exactly been keeping track of speed skating or bobsledding over the past four years, have you?
Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.
The United States is sending their biggest Winter Olympic team ever to Sochi with 230 athletes. The team won a U.S.-record 37 total medals, including nine golds, in Vancouver four years ago. And as you’ll see, that total could increase thanks to some new sports included for the first time in 2014.
Without further ado, we give you the Top 10 stories to watch in Sochi.
1. Lolo and Lauryn
You probably know Summer Olympians Lolo Jones and Lauryn Williams. Williams won a gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics in the 4×100-meter relay and a silver in the 2004 Athens Olympics in the 100 meters. Jones, famously, stumbled on the second-to-last hurdle in the 100 meters in Beijing while leading and then finished fourth in London in the same event. But Mighty Mouse (Williams in just 5-foot-2) and the Olympics’ most famous virgin made a shocking transition to bobsled and are both part of the Team USA two-man teams. Williams, along with her driver Jamie Greubel, won gold in the last World Cup event on Jan. 19 and is a legitimate medal contender in Sochi.
2. Wagner and Gold vs. The World
The U.S. had medaled in every ladies singles figure skating event since the 1964 Innsbruck Olympics before failing to podium four years ago in Vancouver. They are in serious danger of doing the same in Sochi. The U.S. selected Gracie Gold (one of three U.S. athletes with the last name Gold on the team, by the way) and Ashley Wagner to compete this year. Gold, just 18, upset Wagner to win the U.S. Championships last month and was chosen for the team as a result. But Wagner might be the team’s best chance to medal. She’s a two-time U.S. Champion (2012, 2013) and finished fourth in the 2012 World Championships, but fell twice at this year’s U.S. Championships and finished fourth. The names to fear are South Korean Yuna Kim, who gold in Vancouver with a record-setting performance, and Japan’s Mao Asada.
3. Redemption tour
Snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis might be the most infamous silver medalist in U.S. history. The snowboard cross rider blew a big lead in 2006 at the Turin Olympics when she fell after hotdogging on the final jump. Four years later, and favorite again, she cased a jump and blew through a gate leading to a disqualification in the semifinals. Jacobellis, still just 28, is the favorite again in Sochi. She cruised to an easy win in the X Games two weeks ago — her eighth gold medal in her X Games career. She and her trademark curly blond hair will be looking for redemption in what could be her last chance.
4. U.S. vs. Canada hockey
There are few greater tournaments in the world than every four years when we get Olympic men’s hockey. The NHL players, national pride and free-flowing game are a beauty to watch every Olympics. We got an all-timer in Vancouver when the United States rode the stellar goaltending of Ryan Miller into a gold-medal showdown with Sidney Crosby, Rick Nash and Team Canada. The classic final went into overtime before Captain Crosby snuck one past Miller and set off a national celebration in the host country. All of the particulars are back and the U.S. is looking for a changed result. But Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and the Russian hosts have a lot of pressure to come through with gold as well.
5. U.S. vs. Canada hockey: Part II
Don’t forget the biggest rivalry in women’s hockey though. U.S. and the Canada have dominated the sport, winning every gold in the Olympics since the sport was introduced in 1998. The U.S. won in 1998, but Canada has won three straight since then (2002, 2006, 2010) beating the United States in two of those finals. The two sides have met in each of the World Championships since Vancouver and the U.S. holds a 2-1 advantage, including a 3-2 win in Ottawa last year.
6. Holcomb’s Night Train
Men’s bobsled was dominated at the Olympics and world level for years — make that decades — by Germany. The Germans have won three straight two-men competitions in the Olympics and six of eight golds in the four man from 1976 to 2002. But driver Steve Holcomb could change a legacy of German domination in the two-man field in Sochi four years after breaking a 62-year four-man drought for the U.S. “Night Train,” the nickname for the U.S.’s four-man sled is back and a gold-medal contender again. The U.S. and Germans have traded the last three World Championships (Germany in 2011 and 2013, the U.S. in 2012) in four man, but it’s the two-man sled that could break a 78-year drought in Sochi. Holcomb’s U.S. sled won the two-man World Cup this year.
7. Flying Tomato
No list of American Olympians would be complete without the highest-profile athlete in the games: Shaun White. The two-time defending snowboard halfpipe gold medalist was gearing up to sweep two golds in Sochi thanks to the newly added slopestyle competition. But White pulled out one day before the slopestyle competition and said he would focus on a halfpipe three-peat. To be honest, White used to be an elite slopestyle competitor, but has been passed by the likes of Canadians Mark McMorris and Max Parrot (pronounced like the Texas billionaire politician, not the bird) in recent years. He won’t have it as easy in the halfpipe in Sochi either. Fellow American Greg Bretz has upped his game and won gold at the X Games last month after White pulled out to focus on Sochi.
8. Jump and drive
If you had asked Americans four years ago what nordic combined was, they’d have been just as likely to think it was a piece of IKEA furniture as would guess Olympic sport. That is, until the U.S. took four of nine medals awarded in the event, including an individual gold for Bill Demong and a team silver. They’d never won a medal in the sport until Vancouver. For the record, the sports being combined are ski jumping and a 10-kilometer cross country race. Demong is again a contender, but German Eric Frenzel has been dominating the World Cup circuit. Side note: nordic combined team member and six-time Olympian Todd Lodwick will be carrying the U.S. flag in Friday’s Opening Ceremonies.
9. More history
U.S. speed skater Shani Davis already holds the distinction of being the first black athlete to ever win an individual gold from any country in the Winter Olympics when he took the 1,000 meters in 2006. But the 31-year-old is probably more worried about exacting revenge for his back-to-back silver medal performances in the 1,500 meters in Turin and Vancouver. He’s going for the 1,000-meter three-peat, and is favored to do so with three World Cup wins this season, but you have to figure a double gold and breaking that silver medal curse would be even better.
10. Celski’s revenge
Apolo Anton Ohno has (finally) retired from short track speed skating, leaving the door open for a new star in one of the most exciting events in the Winter Olympics. American J.R. Celski could be the new man to fight off speed skating superpower South Korea, where fans live and die by the sport. Celski won two bronzes in Vancouver despite a horrific accident the previous September when his blade gashed open his leg requiring emergency surgery and months of rehab. He’s fully healthy this year and the U.S.’s best chance to knock off the Koreans.
Follow Metro New York Sports Editor Mark Osborne on Twitter @MetroNYSports.