The United States will be without two key athletes when it arrives in Sochi for the 2014 Olympics. Apolo Ohno retired after a decorated short-track speedskating career and Lindsey Vonn was forced to miss the games due to a knee injury.
Since the delegation won't have those two stalwarts to help lead the medal charge, there will be added pressure on other athletes to pick up the slack. Luckily for the Americans, several stars from across the winter sports spectrum should step up.
Let's check out three big names that will face the most pressure to win gold in Sochi. They will all see the intensity of the spotlight increase without Ohno and Vonn, but the situation also provides an opportunity for them to shine.
Bode Miller (Alpine Skiing)
Miller has won five Olympic medals in four trips to the games, but only one of them is gold. He won the Super Combined event in Vancouver four years ago to break the gold drought, but should have reached the top of the podium more often given his talent.
Perhaps as a veteran in Sochi things will finally come together for him.
David Leon Moore of USA Today passed along comments from United States coach Sasha Rearick, who said everything is falling into place for Miller at the right time:
All the details came together for Bode this week in Kitzbuehel. Bode has been figuring out some things all season. And Kitzbuehel is such an amazing place, he was able to take that inspiration and take it to another level.
At 36, it's unclear how much longer Miller will be able to compete at an elite level, which adds individual pressure to the already growing team pressure. However, peaking at the right time is essential for Olympic success and he's seemingly on the right track.
J.R. Celski (Speed Skating)
Four years ago, Celski was a 19-year-old Olympic rookie who was firmly in the shadow of Ohno. He managed to pick up a couple of bronze medals, a strong start to his career on the biggest stage, but expectations are much higher this time around.
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Having Ohno around last time was in many ways beneficial to him. It allowed him to go through the Olympic experience without being expected to dominate. That should prove helpful now that he's viewed as one of the key pieces of the American team.
He qualified for three individual events, giving him multiple chances to reach the podium. Given the steady progress he's made over the past four years, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him walk away with a couple of gold medals around his neck.
Lolo Jones (Bobsled)
Jones entered each of the past two summer games with a lot of hype as a hurdler. She wasn't able to find the podium either time. Now, she's joining the winter Olympic team hoping to have more success in the bobsled than she did on the track.
Of course, wherever Jones goes, controversy seems to follow.
Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated notes that NBC Sports was forced to deny it had any role in her making the bobsled team after speculation that the search for star power helped the Iowa native:
NBC Sports execs on the inference that they played a role in Lolo Jones being on the US Olympic team: "Utterly ridiculous" & "preposterous."— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) January 23, 2014
The only way to quiet the critics and end the controversy is to win. As expected, it took Jones some time to find her legs in a new sport, but she's made steady progress. It brings her into contention for Olympic gold once again, and the pressure meter is rising.