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Wednesday, November 20, 2019

10 must-watch U.S. athletes at the Winter Olympics

Mikaela Shiffrin

Though the Winter Olympics are sometimes looked at as the “little brother” of the Summer Games — there’s no basketball, track and field, or gymnastics! — the events always prove to be entertaining.

And though there’s one extra knock on the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Games — NHL players won’t be competing — it’s all but certain Americans will still find themselves glued to the action. NBC’s coverage of the 2014 Sochi Games averaged 21.4 million viewers, which is a number comparable to the viewership of an early-round NFL playoff game or a much-hyped regular season game, an impressive feat considering the Games span 17 nights.

With the competitions based around less-heralded sports such as curling, speed-skating, and snowboarding, there are always a few breakout stars. In the 2014 Sochi Games (can you believe it’s been four years?), the U.S. had T.J. Oshie, Mikaela Shiffrin, and Sage Kotsenburg — not to mention the incredible commentary of Johnny Weir.

With this year’s Games less than one month away (they’ll run Feb. 9-25), we thought some of you could use a primer on a handful of the key United States athletes who will compete in South Korea. Here are 10 home-grown athletes who will likely dominate NBC’s coverage.

1. Lindsey Vonn, Skier

Vonn is an example of the rare Winter Games athlete who has become a household name. And though most recent Vonn news has, regrettably, focused on her personal life — specifically, the leaking of nude photos of her and Tiger Woods — she remains a favorite to compete for gold in alpine skiing, the sport in which the 33-year-old has become a U.S. legend. Vonn missed the Sochi Games with a right knee injury.

“I am devastated to announce that I will not be able to compete in Sochi,” she said at the time. “I did everything I possibly could to somehow get strong enough to overcome having no ACL but the reality has sunk in that my knee is just too unstable to compete at this level.”

When she last appeared in a Winter Games (Vancouver, 2010), Vonn claimed the gold medal, the lone Olympic gold of her career. If she does that again, though, she has said she plans to turn down an invitation to the White House. Vonn drew acclaim in December when she said she would not be representing President Donald Trump at the Games. “I hope to represent the people of the United States, not the President,” Vonn said.

2. Mikaela Shiffrin, Skier

As we mentioned above, Mikaela Shiffrin broke out at the 2014 Sochi Games, when she was a newbie 18-year-old like Chen will be in these Games. The big moment didn’t faze the teen, as she won gold, becoming the youngest slalom champion in Olympic alpine skiing history. She was bred for success; Shiffrin was born in ski country, in Vail, Colo., and is the daughter of two former ski racers. Her brother was also a competitive skier in college.

Now 22, Shiffrin is considered the best slalom skier in the world. The reigning overall World Cup champion has been dominating the international circuit again in 2018 and currently leads the overall World Cup standings. It looks like she’ll run the sport for the foreseeable future. She’s like the Greek Freak of skiing, except she’s already won a ring. In 2014, espnW named Shiffrin one of its Impact 25 women in sports.

3. Shaun White, Snowboarder

White is perhaps the most famous U.S. athlete who will compete in these Games. And though we should clarify that it’s not a lock that he’ll qualify — the 31-year-old “Flying Tomato” is currently in Aspen, Colo., at the third of four U.S. qualifying stops — it seems very likely.

White, who has blossomed into a true celebrity since emerging on the scene as a 17-year-old pro skateboarder, has narrowed his focus since Sochi. He stopped playing guitar for his band, dropped an event (slopestyle), and changed coaches. Now, he’s focused solely on the halfpipe, in which he finished fourth at the 2014 Games. At those Games, White wasn’t the dominant snowboarder he once was — he won gold in 2006 (Turin) and 2010 (Vancouver) — but he was still one of the most watched figures, and you can bet he will be again in 2018. White has called Sochi, which he considers a learning experience, “the best and worst thing that could have happened to me.”

He’s out for revenge — and to show the world he’s learned from Sochi — this year.

4. Nathan Chen, Figure Skater

Want to feel old? Chen, a U.S. figure-skating prodigy, was born in 1999. At the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in early January, the Utah native won his second consecutive national title. When he claimed that honor in 2017, he became the youngest U.S. men’s figure-skating champion since 1966. He’s going to be big; that’s been clear for years.

The young star was featured as ABC News’ “Person of the Week” in 2010, when he was 10. Diane Sawyer introduced him as “someone who’s been dreaming of Olympic glory just like us — but, not exactly like us.” “4-feet-5-inches, 69 pounds, but watch out for him in 2018,” Sawyer said. We will.

5. Gus Kenworthy, Skier

Augustus “Gus” Kenworthy, 26, competes in slopestyle and the halfpipe and became a well-known national figure in Sochi. Kenworthy won silver in slopestyle. During those Games, he also rescued five stray dogs that had been living outside of an Olympic media center, and a photo he posted with the dogs went viral. Kenworthy received widespread support after announcing he was gay in an interview with ESPN in 2015.

“I never got to be proud of what I did in Sochi because I felt so horrible about what I didn’t do,” Kenworthy said in 2015. “I didn’t want to come out as the silver medalist from Sochi. I wanted to come out as the best freeskier in the world.”

During the 2017 World Cup in Switzerland, Kenworthy finished third in Men’s Slopestyle. Kenworthy has an Olympic rings tattoo on his right biceps and is in search of his first gold.

6. Jamie Anderson, Snowboarder

Sochi included the inaugural women’s slopestyle snowboarding event, and Jamie Anderson claimed gold. At the age of 9, Anderson received a hand-me-down snowboard. Four years later, she qualified for the Winter X Games. One year later, she claimed a bronze medal. She was the youngest female medalist at the X Games. The 27-year-old has now been dominating the X Games for more than a decade, racking up 11 total medals in the process (four gold, five silver, two bronze). Anderson calls herself a “free spirit” who does a lot of yoga. She went viral at the last Olympics for her comments about Tinder. Anderson also appeared on the cover of ESPN’s 2014 Body Issue.

“For me, being asked to be on the cover of ESPN was a huge deal,” Anderson said in an interview with Pyramid Magazine. “I’ve definitely never posed naked or even in a bikini suit or anything before so I didn’t really know what to think of it at first…I thought about it for a little bit and I thought it was a really cool opportunity to stay true to myself and not try to be anything I’m not.”

7. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani, Figure Skaters

The sibling figure skaters are a package deal. The Shibutani brother-sister duo are the top U.S. ice-dancing pairing, as Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who claimed gold in Sochi and have been the preeminent U.S. duo for years, decided not to defend their title.

“We had to step up to the plate and develop our own sense of who we are,” Alex Shibutani said. “Regardless of whether Meryl and Charlie were around, we were just ready to do that at that point in our career.”

With a rare degree of synergy and fluidity, the Shibutanis have claimed two straight U.S. titles and two straight world championship medals. Alex attributes much of their success to how close the siblings are. Maia is 23 and Alex is 26. Their parents, both of Japanese descent, met as Harvard musicians. Their new free program will be skated to Coldplay’s “Paradise.”

Russia dominated figure skating at the 2004 Games, racking up five medals, while the U.S. brought in two. In the team competition, all eyes will be on the Shibutanis.

8. Jessie Diggins, Skier

Jessie Diggins has her eyes sit on an ambitious goal: becoming the first-ever U.S. Olympic women’s cross-country skiing medalist. Bill Koch, who accomplished the feat in 1976, is the only U.S. Olympian to ever medal in the event. Diggins will have a shot at the elusive accomplishment. She led the U.S. team to its best showing ever at the world championships in Feb. 2017. The team totaled three medals. The now-26-year-old from Minnesota placed eighth out of 61 competitors in Sochi.

Diggins, who says she was on skis before she could walk, has a myriad of interests, including dancing, soccer, violin, swimming, and running track.

9. Lowell Bailey, Biathlete

Bailey competes in the biathlon, which combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. The 36-year-old has been competing since 2001 and has made four Olympic teams (his best finish was 27th at the 2006 Games). He’s won five medals over 12 seasons in the World Cup, but he appears to just be peaking now. In Feb. 2017, he became the first American to earn an Olympic or world title when he won gold at the World Championships in Austria. With that win, he became the first U.S. athlete to punch his ticket to Pyeongchang. Bailey said it was “like a dream you see on a Disney movie.”

Bailey, who grew up in Lake Placid, is a fascinating guy. He almost quit the biathlon in 2016 to become a grass-fed cattle farmer. Bailey also plays guitar and mandolin in multiple bands in Lake Placid.

10. John Shuster, Curler

We’ve got to include a curler on the list! Shuster is putting the U.S. curling team on the map. In 2017, he finished fourth at the World Championships. The year before that, he guided the U.S. to its first Olympic or world medal — in men’s or women’s curling — since 2007. If you’ve watched curling at the recent Winter Games, you’ve surely seen him before. He helped the U.S. to 2-7 records at both the 2010 and 2014 Games. He recently became the first U.S. man to qualify for four Olympic teams.

The 35-year-old from Minnesota has competed in seven world championships and won a bronze medal at the 2006 Turin Games, the first U.S. Olympic curling medal. When he’s not curling, Shuster, a father of two, works as a part-time Team USA Sales Associate for Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Aaron Mansfield is a freelance sports writer. His work has appeared in Complex, USA Today, and the New York Times. You can reach him via email at [email protected]



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