Team USA's Best Bets to Fill the Lindsey Vonn Star Void

James McMahonContributor IJanuary 7, 2014

Team USA's Best Bets to Fill the Lindsey Vonn Star Void

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    Lindsey Vonn’s announcement Tuesday that her knee injury would force her out of the 2014 Sochi Olympics not only damages the U.S. women’s alpine medals hopes, it lessens the star power for the entire American contingent heading to Russia next month.

    Vonn is more than a decorated veteran skier, she is one of a handful of American athletes in these Games, along with the likes of Shaun White, Lolo Jones and Shani Davis, with the power to transcend the sport with her stardom and popularity.

    From the glass-half-full perspective, however, Vonn’s unfortunate and bitterly disappointing setback creates a new opportunity for lesser-known Americans to rise in notoriety and join those other athletes.

    The United Sates has a rich history in the Winter Olympics, and there's a host of potential stars bubbling under the icy surface in popular sports such as speedskating, skiing and, of course, figure skating as the Sochi Games near.

    Here are the athletes most likely to rise to stardom in Vonn’s place as the 2014 Winter Games play out.

Mikaela Shiffrin, Women's Alpine Skiing

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    With Vonn out, the mantle of team leader likely passes to rising alpine star Mikaela Shiffrin, who now faces far more pressure in Sochi than she ever anticipated. If recent performances are any indication, she should be up to the task.

    Just this past weekend, the 18-year-old captured her second World Cup Slalom of the season in Italy. The sixth victory of her still-young career, Shiffrin won by only 0.13 seconds, but more importantly, gained additional confidence that she will now need with Vonn on the sidelines.

    Olympic alpine legend Bode Miller recently described the skier as a “phenom,” and though Shiffrin made her first World Cup start only three years ago at the age of 15, she has absolutely been rising up the ranks like one.

    In her second season, she became the first non-European to win four World Cup slalom races and made six podiums. Last year, she became the youngest slalom World Champion in U.S. history.

    With that pedigree supporting her, Shiffrin is now the face of the women’s alpine team, and she will be called upon to deliver medal performances in Vonn’s stead. Should she do that, the teenager will become a Sochi star for sure.

J.R. Celski, Men's Short-Track Speedskater

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    Short-track speedskating is fast becoming one of the more popular events in the Winter Olympics, and J.R. Celski is poised to become the face of the men’s team competing in Sochi.

    The talented 23-year-old captured three of the four finals he raced in during last weekend’s U.S. short-track trials, and he claimed a pair of bronze medals in the 2010 Vancouver Games, his first Olympics.

    That performance was even more impressive given that the skater badly sliced open his leg just several weeks before heading to Vancouver. Celski’s right skate cut his leg in a crash at the 2010 trials, bruising his femoral artery, coming within inches of severing it.

    That scary injury now long behind him, Celski is poised to step in for the retired Apolo Anton Ohno as the leader of a U.S. short-track team looking to move beyond months of in-fighting and scandal.

    The skater will be a medal threat in the 500-, 1,000- and 1,500-meter individual races and is a central figure on the 5,000-meter relay team. Medaling in all of them is a lot to ask, but if he claims three, including a gold or two, he will be the breakout star of the 2014 Winter Games.

Gracie Gold, Ladies Figure Skating

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    If Gracie Gold is successful in making her first U.S. Olympic figure skating team this weekend as expected, she may very well be on the verge of stardom at Sochi. There’s no denying she already has the name for it.

    Gold, who is competing for one of the three Olympic spots at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships this week in Boston, is a dynamic teenage talent with the type of flair and grace on the ice that America so easily falls in love with.

    Off the ice, she has the beauty and strong personality that makes some Olympic athletes transcendent stars beyond their sports. Surprising many, the 18-year-old fired longtime coach Alex Ouriashev this past August, just a handful of months before the national championships and Olympics, and is now working with veteran Frank Carroll.

    Certainly one of the favorites to head to Sochi, Gold won the silver medal in the 2013 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, and is certainly one to not only perform well on the big stage, but to embrace it. If she does that this weekend in Boston, America might have its first Olympic female skating star since Sara Hughes next month in Russia.

Emily Scott, Women's Short-Track Speedskater

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    Emily Scott is making a first-ever Olympic appearance that just seven months ago seemed was painfully slipping away from her.

    Just this past summer, the talented American short-track speedskater was living on food stamps after her monthly stipend from U.S. Speedskating was cut significantly from just under $2,000 to $650. She was struggling to simply pay rent and was on verge of taking a loan or finding a part-time job that would ultimately limit her training time.

    Yet after USA Today detailed her struggles back in July, 689 people stepped up to donate a total of $48,625 that kept Scott’s Olympic dream alive. That generosity made it possible for the skater to continue training and preparing for the short-track trials, where she won the 1,500-meter event and ultimately qualified for all three individual competitions at the Sochi Games.

    While her story will undoubtedly be told many times over during the 2014 Winter Games, Scott is also more than capable of claiming glory on the ice. Though arguably the second-best skater on her own team, the Missouri native is a threat to win a medal in each event (500 meters, 1,000 meters and 1,500 meters) she will compete in.

    The combination of her difficult journey to Sochi with medal success once there, will be a difficult story for America to ignore.

Max Aaron, Men's Figure Skating

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    Given his tattooed arms and past history as a hockey standout, Max Aaron might not be your prototypical American figure skating champion, but that’s exactly what he is.

    The reigning national champion is potentially the United States’ best bet for an Olympic medal if he can earn one of two spots on the men’s team this weekend at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. The 21-year-old is a powerful skater known for his strong jumps, which would make him a popular skater to watch in Sochi next month.

    Should he get past the deep field of contenders in Boston, Aaron will undoubtedly be an underdog in the Winter Games, yet given his confident nature and flair for the dramatic, he could also be an unexpected star.

    In last year’s national championship, the skater, who often speaks of his pride of being an accomplished Jewish-American athlete, rallied from four spots back with a thrilling free-skate program. That victory has lifted Aaron's career to the point where he at least is in the discussion for a medal in the Winter Games.

    This nation loves its underdogs, and if Aaron makes it to Sochi as expected, he will be a fun one to watch and root for.

Heather Richardson, Women's Long-Track Speedskater

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    Determined to put a forgettable 2010 Vancouver Winters Olympics behind her, gifted long-track speedskater Heather Richardson heads to Sochi with strong momentum carrying her.

    The North Carolina native didn't just shine at the U.S. long-track speedskating trials, she absolutely dominated them. The Olympic veteran swept the 500-, 1,000- and 1,500-meter events, and will be a significant threat to win one, maybe two, medals at the Sochi Games.

    That performance was further proof that Richardson has successfully moved beyond the Vancouver Games, where she failed to produce anything better than a sixth-place finish in three events. Indeed, a multiple-medal showing in Sochi would make 2010 a distant memory, and it make the skater one of the biggest turnaround stories of the Winter Olympic Games.

    Her best opportunities for gold will be in the shorter 500- and 1,000-meter events, but her improvement over the past couple years in the 1,500 meters has been significant and she can surely medal at that distance as well.

    There’s nothing like a second chance in sports, and Richardson will be an American favorite if she can claim hers in Sochi.

Lindsey Van, Women's Ski Jump

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    Lindsey Van isn't simply heading to Sochi as a medal favorite in ski jumping; she’s going as a true trailblazer in the long battle to get the sport’s inclusion into the Winter Olympics.

    After a long and bitter fight that goes back years, Van and other women ski jumpers took the Vancouver Organizing Committee, the group in charge of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, to court in Canada, claiming sexual discrimination since men’s ski jumping was part of those Games but the women were not.

    Van and the other ski jumpers got a favorable ruling from the British Columbia Supreme Court, and the International Olympic Committee finally relented and added women’s ski jumping to the Sochi Games for the first time ever.

    It’s fitting then that Van will arrive in Russia not only as the catalyst for the sport’s place in the Winter Olympics, but also as a medal favorite in its inaugural competition in the Games.

    The American owns 16 ski jumping national championships, a world championship and eight international victories to her credit. Though the international talent pool is deep, the 29-year-old has the skill and the experience to excel in Russia.

    If she couples her vital role in the successful inclusion of the sport with a strong Sochi performance, she will ultimately be one of the most significant athletes in the 2014 Winter Games. Yet even if she doesn't medal, there’s no denying Van's ultimate importance given the fact that women’s ski jumping is finally part of the competition.