Sochi 2014: Ranking the 20 Most Underrated Athletes

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterJanuary 31, 2014

Sochi 2014: Ranking the 20 Most Underrated Athletes

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    Liechtenstein's Tina Weirather
    Liechtenstein's Tina WeiratherMarco Tacca/Associated Press

    The Winter Olympic Games kick off when the torch is lit Feb. 7 in Sochi, Russia.

    If you plan on watching the games, it can be tough to get a firm handle on the fields. Once a person wades through all the stories about security and local infrastructure and safety and security and security again, one often finds only the usual athletic suspects. You know who I mean: the Germans, the Canadians, a few Americans named Lindsey and we're done.

    Well, I'm here to help you navigate through those layers. In that spirit, I've uncovered a few of Sochi's more underrated athletes. These aren't complete unknowns or also-rans in their respective fields (no Olympian is), and many have chances to medal. But they are below the radar and certainly worth keeping an eye out for when the cameras turn to the sports.

    Athletes are ranked based on their ability to succeed and ability to surprise fans and pundits.

20. Joji Kato

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    Jim Urquhart-USA TODAY Sports

    Event: Speedskating, 500 meters

    Nation: Japan

    Why He Matters: Speedskating is the shortest of races, and it's awfully fun to watch. Just don't blink, as they say. 

    Joji Kato took the bronze in 2010. The ongoing supremacy battle between relative superstars Michel Mulder of the Netherlands and Korean Mo Tae-Bum gets all the relative headlines, but Kato could sneak in to the mix again, maybe onto the bronze podium—like he did in Vancouver in 2010—or even higher.

    He's a former world champion and world-record holder and has plenty of experience on the global stage. If there's an opening, he'll know how to blaze through it.

19. Jeremy Abbott

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    Event: Men's figure skating

    Nation: United States

    Why He Matters: Jeremy Abbott is a four-time U.S. champion, but the 28-year-old has never had great success on the world stage, finishing ninth at the 2010 Olympic Games and never placing higher than fifth at the World Figure Skating Championships. 

    But fresh off his latest national title, Abbott could be poised to break that streak. He set scoring records en route to this title and can pull off the elusive quadruple toe loop. 

    Still, Abbott is overshadowed in his own country by Evan Lysacek (not competing in Sochi) and phenom Jason Brown and on the world stage by Canada's Patrick Chan and Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu. Maybe he'll find the medal stand, maybe he won't. But he has the chops to at least be the highest-placing American in Sochi. We'll see if he can put it all together.

18. Winston Watt and Marvin Dixon

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    Event: Men's bobsleigh, two-man

    Nation: Jamaica

    Why They Matter: These unlikely cult heroes keep exceeding expectations.

    You like how I'm calling it "bobsleigh," like there are bells and horses involved? I'm very worldly in that way. Don't Americanize it.

    The two-man team of Winston Watt and Marvin Dixon weren't expected to qualify for the 2014 Games. They did. But then they didn't have any money to actually get to Sochi. There was the Internet to the rescue, raising way more than was needed, including through some kind of cryptocurrency drive. I dunno.

    Will they win a medal? They aren't favored. But people keep underestimating them, and they keep crushing expectations. I'm not about to leave them off this list.

17. Jakov Fak

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    Stanko Gruden/Agence Zoom/Getty Images

    Event: Biathlon, 12.5-kilometer pursuit

    Nation: Slovenia

    Why He Matters: A history of achievement and still young

    The French, the Germans and the Norwegians dominate men's biathlon events. But how about some love for the Slovenians?

    Jakov Fak took the bronze at the 2010 Olympics and could do so again in Sochi. He didn't immediately follow up his 2010 Olympic performance with another major breakthrough, but then he broke through and took a gold and silver home from the 2012 World Championships.

    He's still young at 26, too. And he has shown he can do it on the big stage. He could be able to muscle some of the bigger guys aside.

16. Jamie Greubel

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    Todd Korol/Getty Images

    Event: Women's bobsleigh

    Nation: United States

    Why She Matters: Lolo Jones is getting all the column inches as a pusher, and Elana Meyers has more success as a driver. But Jamie Greubel has plenty of experience of her own.

    She and sledmate Lauryn Williams won the last World Cup race before the Games. Greubel, a heptathlete in college, could be a surprise factor.

15. Albert Demtschenko

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    Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

    Event: Luge

    Nation: Russia

    Why He Matters: You know and I know it: Felix Loch is the king of the luge. And his German teammates seem ready to stand around him on the podium like henchmen.

    Russia could be the best hope for any men's slider not from Germany or named Armin Zoeggeler. The 42-year-old, who won a silver at the 2006 Games but finished off the podium in 2010, could have the stuff to make one last medal run.

14. Tina Weirather

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    Marco Tacca/Associated Press

    Event: Alpine skiing (downhill, giant slalom, Super-G)

    Nation: Liechtenstein

    Why She Matters: Hailing from the eensy teensy nation of Liechtenstein is 24-year-old Tina Weirather. She had an unremarkable finish in the 2006 Games, and a knee injury kept her out of 2010, but she's getting stronger on the World Cup circuit every year and is considered a rising star in the sport.  

    She's young and definitely green. But with some luck and some lightning in a bottle, she could make some noise in one of the events, particularly the downhill.

13. Torin Yater-Wallace

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    Event: Freestyle skiing, half-pipe

    Nation: United States

    Why He Matters: Torin Yater-Wallace might be right in the thick of medal talk if not for the cracked ribs he suffered recently while competing on the Dew Tour. Still, the 18-year-old has all the talent to crash the podium if he's back to full strength by the time he touches down in Russia.

12. David Murdoch

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    Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

    Event: Curling

    Nation: Great Britain

    Why He Matters: This Scotsman is the skip for the British curlers in Sochi. The classic mainland European powerhouses are favored at the Games, but David Murdoch won more than one European championship at the helm of a different group. He's seasoned. He's primed. And he is about that action, boss.

    I mean, look at the guy. Look at that laser focus. He takes curling seriously.

    Would you trust him with your curling stone? Because I would trust him with my curling stone. 

11. Denis Ten

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Event: Men's figure skating

    Nation: Kazakhstan

    Why He Matters: OK, you can stash all those Kazakhstan jokes. They weren't funny, nor were they accurate, and now they're not even creative anymore. So just save it, why don't you, sir or madam. 

    Denis Ten wants to be a benefit to his glorious nation by taking home a medal from Sochi. Ten is only 20, but he won the silver medal at the 2013 World Championships, second only to Canadian juggernaut and Sochi fave Patrick Chan. He actually bested Chan in the long program.

    If the artful and energetic youngster can get the crowd behind him and avoid mistakes, he could crack the medal podium ahead of more established favorites like Japan's Yuzuru Hanyu and Spain's Javier Fernandez.

10. Coline Mattel

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    Stanko Gruden/Agence Zoom/Getty Images

    Event: Ski jumping

    Nation: France

    Why She Matters: While U.S. winter sports fans are all focused on Sarah Hendrickson's knee, Coline Mattel might just sneak up and flat-tire our shoes. 

    There are others in the mix who warrant consideration above Hendrickson. Russia's Irina Avvakumova may be one. Japan’s Sara Takanashi is another.

    But Mattel has an interesting potential advantage in that she won the World Cup event from last year that went down in a little place called Sochi. Check. And mate.

9. Felix Neureuther

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    Giovanni Auletta/Associated Press

    Event: Alpine skiing, slalom

    Nation: Germany

    Why He Matters: Felix Neureuther might have been a much stronger blip on radars had he not had ankle surgery six months ago, then injured his knee and back in separate falls after he returned to action in late fall.

    But in January, Neureuther served notice, winning three World Cup races in a row. Looks like he's healthy now.

    After the first win, he took the opportunity to criticize Russia's human-rights record. Quiet, Felix. Do you want to get erased?

8. Bode Miller

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    Event: Alpine skiing, downhill and Super-G

    Nation: United States

    Why He Matters: That's right, I said Bode Miller. 

    He's already won five Olympic medals. And he's now 36 years old, so it stands to reason this is his last Olympic run.

    He's been passed by in recent years, including by fellow American Ted Ligety. But microfracture surgery that caused him to miss the entire 2013 season may have been a fountain of youth for Bode. He's reportedly pain-free, 20 pounds lighter and finished a close second in a World Cup Super-G event in January. 

    Miller appears primed and ready for Sochi. Look out, world.

7. Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte

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    Darko Bandic/Associated Press

    Event: Ice dancing

    Nation: Italy

    Why They Matter: Ice dancing, ICE DANCING, ice danciiiiiiiiing! ARE. YOU. READYYYYYYYYYYY??

    White. Davis. Moir. Virtue. These names will be etched in the stone tablets of ice-dancing history. The American team of Charlie White and Meryl Davis will once again, and maybe for all the marbles, face off against Canadians Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue.

    That big rivalry sucks up all the air in most ice-dancing rooms and understandably so. As for the bronze medal, the Russians or the French appear to be the favorites there. But believe you me, you want to keep an eye out for the Italian team of Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte. They are dynamic. Be the smartest person in the bar and remember those names. 

6. Aiko Uemura

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    rick bowmer/Associated Press

    Event: Freestyle skiing, moguls

    Nation: Japan

    Why She Matters: This is typically North American territory, and this year Hannah Kearney and Heidi Kloser from the States and the Great White North's Justine Dufour-Lapointe are favored.

    But Japan could crash the party this time in the form of 34-year-old Aiko Uemura. This will be her fifth consecutive Olympics, though she has yet to win a medal. She does have two World Championships gold medals, though, and methinks this—in what is probably her final bite at the apple—could be her big taste of Olympic glory.

5. Yvonne Nauta

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    Stanislav Filippov/Associated Press

    Event: Speedskating, 5,000 meters

    Nation: Netherlands

    Why She Matters: Ireen Wüst is touted as the best there is at the longer distances. And she's going for five medals in Sochi. To break through at 5,000 meters (a newer race in her repertoire), she will have to best Martina Sablíkova of the Czech Republic, the defending champion at that length.

    After those two, there's a bit of a vacuum. Enter Yvonne Nauta. Wust's teammate, Nauta, is only 22 years old and entering her first Olympics. But just a few weeks ago, Nauta bested her countrywoman and finished second to Sablikova in the event during the 2014 European Allround Championships.

4. Lindsey Jacobellis

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    Todd Korol/Getty Images

    Event: Snowboard cross

    Nation: United States

    Why She Matters: Lindsey Jacobellis might have the most familiar story of any U.S. Olympian. On her way to gold in 2006, she hot-dogged it on the final jump, fell and lost. In 2010, a freaky crash with another skier ended her hopes again.

    Bravely and gamely, she's giving it one more shot. And she had gold-medal talent before, even if she didn't, uh, get the medal.

    Thanks to yet another X Games gold just a few weeks before the Olympics, she has some momentum going in. Some actually favor her to come out on top, but she still makes the list because of her past, which will cause plenty of folks to undervalue her until she nails down that elusive final resume item.

3. Max Parrot

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Event: Snowboarding, slopestyle

    Nation: Canada

    Why He Matters: Fresh off X Games wins in slopestyle and big air, Max Parrot is primed and ready for a big Olympics showing. In order to get those victories, he had to beat Mark McMorris, his fellow Canadian and the far bigger name of the two. McMorris fractured his rib in that effort, which is a shame for McMorris but could unwittingly boost Parrot.

    Plus, Parrot is a fun-loving guy who apparently comes from a town called Bromont. Oh, come on. That's not real.

    He'll still need to get past some stiff competition from Sweden and the U.S.—including that White guy, who skipped the X Games to brush up for the Olympics—but he has the tools to be right in the thick of things. Remember the name. You could see him high on the medal podium.

2. Finland Men's Hockey Team

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    Tuukka Rask
    Tuukka RaskDave Sandford/Getty Images

    Event: Men's hockey

    Nation: Finland

    Why They Matter: The usual suspects are very much in effect on the hockey side of things. The Canadians, the Russians (performing under massive hometown pressure and support), the Swedes and the Americans are all in the mix to go home with some metal around their necks.

    But Finland may make a nice party crasher. Why? Two words: Tuukka Rask. The Boston Bruins goalie is one of the very best in the world. If he gets hot, he can make a big difference and could spur his country to unexpected heights.

1. Danny Davis

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Event: Snowboarding, half-pipe

    Nation: United States

    Why He Matters: Shaun White will be pushed in this event by Russia's Iouri Podladtchikov, who has invented the delightfully named "YOLO flip." That's two flips and a quadruple twist done simultaneously. For the uninitiated, that's a difficult and spectacular move.

    But Danny Davis is everyone's favorite long shot. The laid-back snowboarding dude is straight out of central casting and is a sentimental favorite after fighting his way back from a really bad injury suffered back in 2010.

    But it's not the kind of injury you might envision. Davis had just finished beating Shaun White at an event and was so amped that night that he got wasted and crashed his ATV into a gate. Broken vertebra, broken pelvis. Bye-bye, 2010 Olympics, for which he had been a shoo-in.

    He's all the way back now, though, and just finished dominating the X Games super-pipe. Watch this guy in Sochi. No, seriously. Keep a close eye on him—for everyone's sake.