With a strong mix of veteran leadership and youthful enthusiasm, the U.S. Olympic Alpine ski team heads to Sochi to tussle with the world’s best with a good measure of expectations.
In what should be an exhilarating 13 days of competition in Russia, popular American athletes such as Bode Miller, Ted Ligety, Julia Mancuso and newcomer Mikaela Shiffrin will compete in 10 men’s and women’s competitions that will certainly be among the most followed of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
As always, skiers from European countries such as Norway, Austria and France will be significant medal threats in Russia. Stars such as Norway's Aksel Lund Svindal, Slovenia's Tina Maze and Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch are sure to introduce themselves as the Alpine competition plays out.
The test between skier and mountain is always one that garners attention during the Winter Olympics, and we can expect great drama and intrigue in Sochi this time around.
Here are the athletes to know, the events to follow and the storylines to stay on top of when the competition gets underway on the slopes.
If there’s a more challenging, demanding and exhilarating sport in the Winter Olympics than Alpine skiing, we haven’t found it.
At its core, the sport pits skier versus mountain in a classic test of athleticism and bravery, and it consistently delivers some of the most memorable moments of the Winter Games.
Sometimes the mountain wins, and the crashes are unforgettable. Yet more often than not, the gifted skiers that ascend to Olympic competition are the masters of the slopes they navigate.
While the sport is largely dominated by Europeans, in particular Norwegians and Austrians, the United States has had its moments, including gold-medal performances from the likes of Miller, Ligety and Phil Mahre on the men’s side and Picabo Street, Mancuso and Lindsey Vonn, whose breakthrough in the 2010 Games delivered the United States its only women's downhill gold medal ever.
Olympic Alpine competition takes place in 10 men’s and women’s competitions in five separate events—downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-G and super combined—with each testing different elements of speed, technical skill and overall athleticism.
The action gets underway on Feb. 9 at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center with the men’s downhill competition and concludes on Feb. 22 with the always exciting men’s slalom. Along the way, 30 Olympic medals will be distributed among male and female skiers.
Originally a good means to get from point A to B in cold weather regions, skiing morphed from a mode of transportation into a competitive sport in the mid-19th century.
The first reported Alpine competitions took place in Norway in the 1840s. The initial national event took place in 1868 and is credited with launching the skiing enthusiasm that continues to this day.
The Olympic Games added men’s and women’s Alpine skiing in 1936 in a single combined competition of downhill and slalom. In 1948 the event split into two separate competitions, and four years later organizers added the giant slalom to the Winter Games. The super giant slalom debuted in 1988.
The sport has seen many great champions, headlined by the likes of Hermann Maier and Alberto Tomba. Phil Mahre is among the most celebrated American skiers, having won gold in the slalom at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games alongside his brother Steve, who claimed the silver medal.
Bode Miller is the most accomplished U.S. skier since Mahre, capturing a pair of silver medals in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and a gold medal in the super combined at the Vancouver Games en route to his total five medals. Miller is also a four-time world champion.
On the women’s side, Lindsey Vonn made history four years ago in Vancouver, becoming the first American to win gold in the downhill. Her inspirational victory stands as one of the most significant for the United States women in Olympic history.
The action on the slopes gets underway on Sunday, Feb. 9, and doesn't let up until the men’s slalom concludes on Feb. 22. Along the way the world's top skiers will compete in 10 events at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center in Sochi.
Below is the schedule of all the action, which will be televised by the NBC Network, so check your local listings for times and channel.
Feb. 9: Men’s downhill, 3 a.m. ET
Feb. 10: Women’s super combined, 3 a.m. ET
Feb. 12: Women’s downhill, 3 a.m. ET
Feb. 14: Men’s super combined, 3 a.m. ET
Feb. 15: Women’s super-G, 3 a.m. ET
Feb. 16: Men’s super-G, 3 a.m. ET
Feb. 18: Women’s giant slalom, 3 a.m. ET
Feb. 19: Men’s giant slalom, 3 a.m. ET
Feb. 21: Women’s slalom, 7:45 a.m. ET
Feb. 22: Men’s slalom, 7:45 a.m. ET
The American enters the Olympics on quite a roll, having finished third overall in the most recent World Cup standings. Ligety won the giant slalom, super-G and the super combined at the World Championships and presents the Americans’ best bet for Olympic medals in Sochi.
The skier captured gold in the super combined at the 2006 Turin Olympics but failed to medal at the Vancouver Games, providing plenty of inspiration as he heads to Russia.
The most decorated American alpine skier of his generation, Miller claimed gold in the super combined at the 2010 Vancouver Games and, at 36, is back looking for even more Olympic glory. The accomplished skier has captured five Olympic medals during his storied career and will be a threat in both the super-G and downhill at Sochi.
A left knee injury forced Miller to sit out the 2013 Alpine season, and his health is certainly a factor to watch in Russia.
Aksel Lund Svindal
Already a three-time Olympic medalist, the 31-year-old Norwegian is looking to enhance his resume in the Sochi Games. Svindal captured gold in the super-G in Vancouver and will be a factor in that event and in the downhill as well. The two-time overall World Cup champion, he won the downhill in the 2013 World Championships.
In the absence of Lindsey Vonn, Shiffrin may well become the face of the U.S. Olympic women’s Alpine team in Sochi. The 18-year-old is a dynamic skier who captured the 2013 World Championship in the slalom and finished fifth overall in the World Cup standings in just her second full season of competition.
Provided the bright spotlight of the Olympics isn't too much for her, Shiffrin stands a good chance at becoming the first American woman to win slalom gold since Barbara Ann Cochran did it in 1972.
"I'm going to Sochi with such a positive feeling," she said, via USA Today's David Leon Moore. "I'm coming off a pretty good season. All I know is positive. I'm excited to go and race my heart out and see if I can go for the gold."
While she lacks the star power of Vonn and the future promise of Shiffrin, Mancuso is the most decorated female skier in U.S. Olympic history with her three medals. She captured the gold medal at the 2006 Turin Games in the giant slalom and earned silver in both the downhill and combined at the 2010 Winter Games. Mancuso finished fourth overall in the 2013 World Cup standings and finished third in the super-G at the World Championships.
The Slovenian enters the Olympics off one of the most dominant World Cup seasons in recent memory and is a threat to win multiple medals in Sochi. Maze easily topped the overall World Cup standings and won the super-G in the 2013 World Championships. The 30-year-old already owns a pair of Olympic silver medals in the super-G and giant slalom and will be among the favorites in both events in Russia.
What Is It?
The fastest of the five alpine events, skiers can go as fast as 80 mph down the slopes while skating in and out of gates positioned throughout the course. The gates are farther apart in the downhill than any other event, allowing for the impressive speeds at which the skiers travel. Competitors ski one at a time in the competition.
A pair of Americans, Miller and Ligety, promise to feature prominently in the battle for “King of the Hill” at Sochi.
At 36, Miller is certainly a long shot to win gold in the featured Alpine event, but Ligety comes to Sochi off a strong World Cup campaign and will factor heavily in the proceedings.
Svindal promises to be the biggest obstacle to the Americans' effort to claim gold-medal glory in Russia. The accomplished Norwegian won the silver medal in the downhill in Vancouver as well as bronze in the giant slalom.
Even at 36, Vancouver gold medalist Didier Defago of Switzerland remains a threat in the downhill, as does Croatia’s Ivica Kostelic.
With Vonn sidelined by her knee injury, the biggest question is whether Mancuso can step in and deliver the United States its second-ever gold medal in the signature event.
Mancuso finished second to Vonn in the Vancouver Games and, given her vast experience and past Olympic success, is certainly a Sochi threat.
Behind Mancuso on the American side is likely to be Leanne Smith, who has improved significantly since her first appearance in the Olympics in Vancouver. While it would be a surprise to see Smith on the medal stand in Russia, she has the talent, and now the experience, to pull it off should things break her way.
Germany’s Hoefl-Riesch captured two gold medals in Canada four years ago and is a strong front-runner in the downhill this time around. The 29-year-old is an accomplished World Cup skier who has the potential to win multiple medals in Russia.
What Is It?
The super combined event brings together the downhill and slalom events into one challenge. Athletes ski both events, and the combined score determines the winner.
Americans Ligety and Miller have won gold in the super combined at the past two Olympics and will certainly be central figures at the Sochi Games. Miller’s gold-medal performance was one of the biggest stories of the 2010 Vancouver Games, and a similar performance in Russia would certainly be big news.
For his part, Ligety is looking to erase the memories of a poor showing in the competition four years ago and draw on his great race in the 2006 Turin Games. Given his form heading into the Olympics, Ligety is a better bet to medal in Russia than Miller.
Standing in the way of Ligety’s gold-medal quest will be the Norwegian Svindal and Frenchman Alexis Pinturault; both have the ability to win gold in Russia.
Mancuso won the silver medal in the super combined at Vancouver and is the best American hope to reach the medal stand in Sochi.
Already the most decorated Olympian in U.S. history, if Mancuso can surprise with another medal in the event, she will be become one of the biggest stories of the 2014 Winter Games.
The competition facing the American, however, is deep and talented. Germany's Hoefl-Riesch is the top threat to win gold in the event, but she will be challenged by Austria’s Nicole Hosp. Canadian Marie-Michele Gagnon is also a skier to watch in the event.
What Is It?
In the slalom, gates are closer together than any other Alpine race, placing a significant emphasis on technical precision. Skiers compete on two different courses with the two times combined to determine the winner.
Austrian Marcel Hirscher is the favorite to win slalom gold in the Sochi Games. The skier is among the most technically sound in the world, an attribute that will serve him well in Russia.
Hirscher finished 2013 as the top skier in the world and will look to medal not only in the slalom but also the giant slalom and super-G.
Hirscher’s biggest challenge is likely to come from Germany’s Felix Neureuther, who defeated the Austrian in a World Cup event in early January. The victory was the German’s third of the season and the eighth of his career.
The Americans are not expected to medal in the slalom, but Ligety provides the best opportunity.
The United States hasn't medaled in the slalom since Barbara Cochran’s gold medal in the 1972 Games in Sapporo, but newcomer Shiffrin provides a strong opportunity to end that drought in Sochi.
The American is perhaps the most technically sound racer on the U.S. team, and if she can handle the pressure of competing in her first Olympics, she could even challenge for the gold medal in Russia. It’s certainly a lot of ask of the 18-year-old, but the talent she possesses is undeniable.
To achieve such a monumental victory, Shiffrin will have to better Austrian Marlies Schild, who recently set a World Cup record by claiming her 35th slalom title late last year. Hoefl-Riesch is also a strong contender for a gold medal, as is Sweden’s Frida Hansdotter.
What Is It?
Like in the slalom, skiers compete on two courses with their times combined into one total score. Yet in the giant slalom the gates are further apart, increasing the element of speed in the competition.
If these Olympics are going to be special for Ligety, a gold medal in the giant slalom is the key. The U.S. hasn't won a medal in the competition since Miller won silver in Salt Lake City, but Ligety is poised to change that in Sochi.
The American is coming off a strong World Cup campaign and has the perfect complement of speed and precision to excel in the event. At 36, Miller is still a threat as well, but it’s Ligety who will carry the hopes of the United States in the event.
Standing in the American’s way is likely to be Hirscher, whose speed makes him as real a threat in the giant slalom as he is in the slalom. Svindal claimed bronze in the event in Vancouver and will also be a threat to step onto the medal stand in Sochi. Frenchman Alexis Pinturault is also a medal contender in the event but isn't likely to challenge for gold.
Like with the slalom, American eyes will be on Shiffrin in the giant slalom. The American can really make a splash in her first Olympics if she can add a medal in this competition to a strong showing in the slalom event, and in the process most would forget about the absence of Vonn in Russia.
Gold is a stretch, but a silver or bronze is certainly in Shiffrin's wheelhouse, which would set her up nicely for success in the slalom at the end of the Games. Likewise, Mancuso won the giant slalom in Torino eight years ago and is worth keeping an eye on this time around as well.
The best bet for gold in Russia, however, likely lives with Sweden’s Jessica Lindell-Vikarby, who will undoubtedly get a strong test from Maze as well. Liechtenstein’s Tina Weirather is also a medal challenger in the event.
What Is It?
Also known as the super giant, the competition is a mix between the downhill and slalom competitions. Skiers can reach speeds similar to the downhill, but also must navigate gates that are spread out similar to giant slalom distances.
Miller captured the silver medal in the super-G in Vancouver four years ago and certainly is a skier to watch in Sochi. The American's advanced age and his health issues are factors to keep an eye on, but a strong showing in the event would be the perfect final chapter in what has been a terrific career.
Svindal, however, is the reigning gold medalist and is the odds-on favorite to repeat that performance in these Games. Should he indeed capture gold, Svindal will make himself the face of the men's Alpine skiing competition in Russia.
Challenging Svindal and Miller will be Canadian Jan Hudec and Switzerland's’s Patrick Kueng.
Without Vonn, who captured bronze in the event at the 2010 Vancouver Games, the Americans will be hard pressed to reach the medal stand in the super-G.
Maze, however, is present in Sochi and looks to improve upon her 2010 silver-medal showing with gold in the 2014 Games. The Slovenian will have plenty of competition in that effort, with Weirather being chief among them. Given her speed and precision, the Liechtenstein standout will be a threat for a second medal in Russia.
Likely to join her in medal contention are Swiss skier Lara Gut and Austrian Anna Fenninger.
The loss of Vonn was a blow to the depth of the United States Alpine team, but expectations remain high for a solid showing in Sochi.
Mancuso and Shiffrin are both strong candidates to deliver multiple medals in Russia, and the 18-year-old Shiffrin has added significant intrigue and potential star power to the American team. She is a strong candidate to win gold in the slalom competition, which would be a great exclamation point to the women’s competition.
The veteran Mancuso already owns a trio of Olympic medals, and if she can add one or two more in the 2014 Games, she'll secure her place alongside the best American skiers ever.
Like the women, the hopes of a strong Sochi showing for the men are largely pinned on two skiers—Ligety and Miller. Ligety has proven his mettle during the preceding World Cup season and is a medal threat in no less than two events in Russia.
For his part, Miller needs to avoid the injury bug that has hampered him in the past couple years, but he owns the vast experience and Olympic pedigree to more than hold his own on the slopes against the younger competition he will face.
The talent is deep and significant in Sochi, but if the Americans can live up to their potential and catch a break here and there, four or five medals are possibly in the offering at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center.
Gold: Aksel Lund Svindal, Norway
Silver: Ted Ligety, United States
Bronze: Didier Defago, Switzerland
Gold: Maria Hoefl-Riesch, Germany
Silver: Julia Mancuso, United States
Bronze: Tina Maze, Slovenia
Gold: Marcel Hirscher, Austria
Silver: Felix Neureuther, Germany
Bronze: Mario Matt, Austria
Gold: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States
Silver: Marlies Schild, Austria
Bronze: Frida Handsotter, Sweden
Men’s Giant Slalom
Gold: Ted Ligety, United States
Silver: Alexis Pinturault, France
Bronze: Marcel Hirscher, Austria
Women’s Giant Slalom
Gold: Jessica Lindell-Vikarby, Sweden
Silver: Mikaela Shiffrin, United States
Bronze: Tina Weirather, Liechtenstein
Gold: Aksel Lund Svindal, Norway
Silver: Jan Hudec, Canada
Bronze: Patrick Kueng, Switzerland
Gold: Tina Weirather, Liechtenstein
Silver: Lara Gut, Switzerland
Bronze: Anna Fenninger, Austria
Men’s Super Combined
Gold: Aksel Lund Svindal, Norway
Silver: Ted Ligety, United States
Bronze: Alexis Pinturault, France
Women’s Super Combined
Gold: Maria Hoefl-Riesch, Germany
Silver: Nicole Hosp, Austria
Bronze: Julia Mancuso, United States