2014 Winter Olympics: 25 Breakout Stars to Watch in Sochi

Lindsay GibbsFeatured ColumnistFebruary 4, 2014

2014 Winter Olympics: 25 Breakout Stars to Watch in Sochi

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    The Olympics are a breeding ground for superstars. Every two years, like clockwork, a new batch of heroes is born.

    With many popular disciplines making their Olympic debuts this year and veterans such as Lindsey Vonn missing the Games due to injury, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are set to add a heap of new stars to pop-culture lore.

    Here we take a look at the lesser-known athletes, both young and old, who are about to jump into your hearts and onto your Wheaties boxes by the time the Games are over.

Nick Goepper (USA)—Freestyle Skiing: Slopestyle

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    The gold-medal winner at the last two X Games, this 19-year-old American is primed for a medal in freestyle skiing's slopestyle Olympic debut. 

    Nick Goepper achieved skiing stardom the hard way. Growing up in the Indiana countryside, he had to raise the money to ski. He went around his neighborhood handing out fliers and offering to do odd jobs to to buy goggles and skis.

    He has already been seen on the Golden Globes red carpet and on the couch with David Letterman over the last month, but after the Sochi Games, he might just be a household name.

Mikaela Shiffrin (USA)—Alpine Skiing: Slalom and Giant Slalom

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    Mikaela Shiffrin is the fastest downhill slalom skier in the world and a superstar in the making.

    The 18-year-old Alpine skiing prodigy has taken the skiing community by storm over the past two years. She's already the youngest-ever American slalom world champion and the winner of seven World Cup races, and now she's looking to add one or two Olympic medals to the mix.

    With Lindsey Vonn out of the Games, Shiffrin has already made it on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Olympic preview magazine. If she does well in Sochi, that will only be the beginning. 

Mark McMorris (CAN)—Snowboarding: Slopestyle

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    There aren't many snowboarders who can challenge Shaun White, but Mark McMorris can—and the outgoing and outspoken Canadian isn't afraid to admit it. 

    The 20-year-old already has a reality show with his brother on MTV Canada, where he showcases his love for partying and fun, but he's serious on the slopes. He was the first to land a triple cork in slopestyle competition at the 2013 X Games.

    The risk-taker crashed and broke his ribs during the 2014 X Games, but claims he's still on the road to gold in Sochi. If he can beat White to the top of the slopestyle podium, what an Olympic debut that would be. 

Gracie Gold (USA)—Figure Staking

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    American figure skating has produced a long list of pop-culture icons, and Gracie Gold will be hoping to join that list in her Olympic debut.

    The 18-year-old stole the show at the national championships earlier this year, taking first place with legendary coach Frank Carroll by her side. If she can skate with that much power and artistry in Sochi, she could sneak onto the podium.

    With a name that seems custom-made for an Olympian and a nation that is hungry for a figure-skating starlet, the charismatic Gold might skate and smile her way to celebrity status in Sochi. 

Ashley Wagner (USA)—Figure Skating

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    Everyone loves a tale of redemption, and if Ashley Wagner can have the skate of her life and get onto the podium in Sochi, hers would be one of the best.

    The 22-year-old American finished third at the national championships back in 2010, just missing out on her chance to grab one of the two spots on the Vancouver team. After that disappointment, she recommitted herself and became the U.S. champion in 2012 and 2013.

    She had a disastrous 2014 U.S. Championships, though, and finished fourth, but the committee controversially decided to put her onto the three-person team to Sochi anyway. Wagner will be under a harsh spotlight at the Games, and if she can rise to the occasion and prove that she deserved her place on the team, she might leave Sochi a superstar. 

Patrick Chan (CAN)—Figure Skating

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Oh, Canada! Four years ago in Vancouver, Patrick Chan finished fifth in front of his hometown crowd. But now, the 23-year-old is a three-time defending world champion and the outright favorite for gold in Sochi.

    In a sport filled with over-the-top performers and even more overbearing egos, Chan is a refreshing blend of hard work, humility and confidence that should register well with the Olympic audience.

    He's already a hero in Canada, where he's won seven national titles, but if he wins Canada's first Olympic gold in men's singles, he might just become an international icon.

Javier Fernandez (ESP)—Figure Skating

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    When you think of winter sports, you likely don't think about Spain, but Javier Fernandez is doing his best to change that.

    The 22-year-old is putting Spain on the figure-skating map, and as the two-time reigning European Champion and bronze medalist at the 2013 World Championships, Fernandez has a good shot at winning the first ever figure-skating Olympic medal for his country.

    Expect Fernandez, the flag bearer for his country in this Olympics, to get a lot of screen time as he tries to win Spain's third Winter Olympic medal.

Jason Brown (USA)—Figure Skating

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Jason Brown might have come in second place at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in early January, but he was the one who stole the show.

    The 19-year-old from Illinois skated a sensational free-skate program that captured the hearts of skating fans in America and already has well over three million views on YouTube. His ability to connect with the audience and throw passion into his skates sets him apart from his competitors.

    Brown doesn't have the quad jump in his program, which will likely keep him from the Sochi podium. Even though Evan Lysacek won without the quad in 2010, the physics-defying jump has become crucial for the top men over the last four years. But medal or not, the pony-tailed ice prancer will win a legion of fans at these Games, and he is one to watch for the future. 

Julia Lipnitskaia (RUS)—Figure Skating

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    Darko Bandic/Associated Press

    Julia Lipnitskaia shocked the figure-skating world when she became the youngest European champion ever earlier this year. Now, at just 15, she will be carrying the hopes of her home nation in Sochi.

    According to The Associated Press, she claims that she has recently discovered that emotions help, not hinder, her performance, which is good news heading into the pressure-packed Games. The 2012 World junior champion is looking to become the youngest Olympic figure-skating champion since Tara Lipinski in 1998.

    Russian women haven't had the figure-skating success that their men and pairs counterparts have, but all eyes will be on Lipnitskaia as she takes the ice in Sochi to try and deliver for her country. If she makes the podium, an idol could be born. 

Meryl Davis and Charlie White (USA)—Ice Dancing

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    Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

    As Team USA's best hope for a figure-skating gold medal, the charismatic pair is about to make ice dancing must-see TV.

    Meryl Davis and Charlie White are the favorites for the gold medal in Sochi, and rightly so. Together they've won two world championships and six straight national championships, and now they hope to add a Sochi gold to their Vancouver silver.

    For those who have been paying attention to figure skating over the last four years, the greatness of Davis and White is old news. But with a new international audience tuned in, their fanbase is about to explode.

Kelly Clark (USA)—Snowboard: Half-Pipe

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    Kelly Clark might not fit the traditional definition of a breakout star—after all, this is her fourth Olympics and she won a gold back in Salt Lake City when she was only 18. But it's been a long 12 years, and the 30-year-old is ready to shine again.

    In Torino, the defending champion Clark finished fourth. In Vancouver she was third. Since then, she's rededicated herself to the sport and has been a force. She's won four straight X Games golds and is the favorite to get back to the top of the podium.

    Back in 2002, snowboard halfpipe was still rather new to Olympic audiences. Now, it's a breeding ground for stars, and with her veteran savvy and story of redemption, Clark is ready for another breakthrough. 

Amanda Kessel (USA)—Women's Hockey

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    It's often hard for individuals to shine in team sports, but that doesn't stop Amanda Kessel.

    It helps that her brother Phil is a star player for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL and also a member of Team USA's men's hockey team, but it's really Kessel's talent as a speedy forward on the ice that gets her noticed. 

    She led her college hockey team to an undefeated season, scored the game-winning goal in USA's world championship match against Canada and is now looking to push Team USA to its first women's hockey gold since 1998. If she can do that, she might become a national hero. 

Heather Richardson (USA)—Speedskating

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    America hasn't had any female medalists in long-track speedskating since Salt Lake City 12 years ago, but if things go her way, Heather Richardson will change that.

    The down-to-earth and friendly North Carolinian—who is engaged to another speedskater competing in Sochi, Jorrit Bergsma of the Netherlands—swept all three of her events at the U.S. Olympic team trials and is now poised to lead the USA back to the podium and become a star all in one fast skate.

    She didn't medal at the 2010 Olympics, but now she's predicted to win medals in the 1,000 meters and 500 meters. 

Victor An (RUS)—Short-Track Speedskating

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    Hong Wu/Getty Images

    Formerly known as South Korea's top speedskater Ahn Hyun-Soo, Victor An is now skating under the Russian flag in Sochi, and the 28-year-old is ready for another breakthrough.

    Back in 2006 in Torino, he was a South Korean superstar with three gold medals to prove it. But he struggled with injury after injury for the next four years, didn't qualify for Vancouver and felt as if the South Korean federation had abandoned him.

    So, he became a Russian citizen, switched his name to Victor for "victory" and is now poised to win big in front of his adopted nation. That's one way to get the hometown support! 

Norwegian Curling Team

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    Associated Press

    Most of the time, Olympians become stars because of their athletic success. Sometimes, however, they capture the headlines for other reasons. Like pants.

    The Norwegian curling team made a splash with their outlandish pants in Vancouver—where they also happened to win a silver medal—and now the quartet is back at it again. Their nausea-inducing zigzag ensemble has made them media darlings, and they are soaking it up every minute.

    They have a Facebook page for the pants (and the curling) that already has more than 500,000 likes, and they've been doing the talk-show circuit already. They're the fourth-place team in the curling rankings right now, but their Twilight Zone suits are the stars of the show.

Sara Takanashi (JAP)—Ski Jumping

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    Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images

    Men's ski jumping has been a part of the Games since 1924, and now, 90 years later, the women finally get to join in. 

    There will be a lot of attention on the event for that very reason, and the athlete who is primed to benefit the most is Sara Takanashi, the 17-year-old who has taken the ski jumping world by storm. 

    She has 17 World Cup wins already and has won eight of nine events this season. By winning the inaugural women's ski jumping Olympic event, the high schooler could jump her way into the history books and superstardom.

Sarah Hendrickson (USA)—Ski Jumping

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    Giovanni Auletta/Associated Press

    The only ski jumper who has proved she can rival Sara Takanashi is America's Sarah Hendrickson.

    The 19-year-old was the 2013 world champion in ski jumping and a gold-medal favorite before a fall last August left her with knee ligament damage that resulted in surgery and time off her skis during the crucial lead-up stretch to Sochi.

    But Hendrickson has made her way to the Games and claims to be in good form, per NBC Olympic Talk. If she can recapture her 2013 world championship magic, she could knock Takanashi off the top of the podium and become a megastar herself. 

Kikkan Randall (USA)—Cross-Country Skiing: Individual Sprint

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    Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

    The USA finally has a chance to win a gold medal in cross-country skiing, and Kikkan Randall is the one who is expected to deliver it. 

    The 31-year-old Alaskan is an Olympic veteran who is competing in her fourth Games, but this is the first time she's supposed to medal, let alone win.

    The pink-haired sprinter is trying to snap a 38-year medal drought for the U.S. in an event that is usually dominated by Europeans. If she can make history, she'll live on in American Olympic lore forever. 

David Wise (USA)—Freestyle Skiing: Half-Pipe

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    David Wise isn't like a lot of his laid-back, party-hard competitors in freestyle skiing, but the 23-year-old father still belongs on the slopes.

    In fact, as the freestyle skiing half-pipe event makes its Olympic debut in Sochi, the reigning world champion Wise is the best shot that the U.S. has for gold in the event. 

    With his wife and daughter by his side in Sochi, the family man and youth-group leader is likely to appeal to a much broader audience than the typical snowboarder, and that should help boost his profile coming out of the Games. A medal wouldn't hurt, either. 

Maddie Bowman (USA)—Freestyle Skiing: Half-Pipe

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    Maddie Bowman might come off as the ultimate laid-back girl who just likes to relax and enjoy herself on the half-pipe, but underneath the calm demeanor is a ferocious competitor who is looking to break out of her shell in Sochi.

    The 20-year-old is the best American hopeful in freestyle skiing half-pipe's Olympic premiere, and she's already discussed adding difficulty to her run for the big event, per FreeSkier.com.

    The daughter of two skiers, Bowman comes by her love for the slopes naturally, but the fearlessness is all her own. With back-to-back X Games wins and first-place finishes in three of the last five Olympic qualifiers, she is the future of the sport, and after Sochi, she might be the face of it too. 

Noelle Pikus-Pace (USA)—Skeleton

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    Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

    Sochi will be Noelle Pikus-Pace's final Games, and after a heart-wrenching journey, she might finally get her happy ending.

    The 31-year-old has not had good luck in the Olympics. She was a potential favorite headed into Torino, but in late 2005 she was struck in practice by a runaway four-man bobsled and broke her leg. She couldn't recover in time.

    She rebounded in time for Vancouver, where she finished fourth, just fractions of a second away from the podium.

    Her story doesn't get easier after that. Pikus-Pace, already a mother of two, retired after Vancouver, convinced that her Olympic dreams were over. But she found solace in the sport after a devastating miscarriage in 2012, and now she comes into Sochi as a favorite for gold after winning four of the eight World Cup races this season.

    She proves that it's never too late to break out. 

Justine, Chloe and Maxime Dufour-Lapointe (CAN)—Freestyle Skiing: Moguls

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    Todd Korol/Getty Images

    Everyone loves an all-in-the-family tale, which is why Justine, Chloe and Maxime Dufour-Lapointe are likely to be the talk of Sochi.

    The three sisters are Canada's entire freestyle skiing moguls team, and all three have high enough rankings that it's possible they could sweep the podium. In the current World Cup standings, Justine, 19, is ranked No. 2 in the world and has the best shot at gold. Maxime, 24, is No. 3, while Chloe, 22, is No. 4. 

    They're rivals and supporters, competitors and sisters, friends and foes. The Dufour-Lapointe clan is about to get a lot of attention at the 2014 Games.

Jamie Anderson (USA)—Snowboard: Slopestyle

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    Jamie Anderson is the most decorated female slopestyler in the history of the sport and is already a superstar in the snowboarding universe. But with slopestyle making its Olympic debut, the 23-year-old daredevil is about to be exposed to a much larger crowd. 

    The free spirit, who has conflicting feelings about the Olympic industry, hopes to one day have a cabin in the woods and live a no-frills life. But the competitor in her hopes that a gold medal is by her side too. 

    Anderson has been competing in the X Games since she was only 15 years old—when she won a bronze—and has four golds there to her name. Despite winning the silver medal in Apsen this year, she's the favorite for gold in Sochi.

Lindsey Jacobellis (USA)—Snowboard: Snowboard Cross

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Lindsey Jacobellis has been the face of many Olympic tales—she was a cautionary tale back in 2006 when a premature celebration knocked her from gold to silver. She was the dark side of the Games in 2010, when she was disqualified from the competition during a qualification run.

    Now, the 28-year-old is hoping to be a tale of redemption, triumph and superstardom.

    Jacobellis, who has seven X Games golds, spent nearly two years away from the slopes recovering from ACL surgery from 2012-2013. But she snapped back into form to win gold at the X Games this year. She is the favorite heading into Sochi once again, and if she can finally get to the top of the podium, her tale is likely to resonate with the masses. 

Winston Watts and Marvin Dixon—Jamaican Bobsled Team

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    Nekesa Mumbi Moody/Associated Press

    Cool Runnings is back. Twelve years after competing in Salt Lake City, Winston Watts, who competed for Jamaica in 2002, is going to be driving another bobsled in the Olympics.

    It's been a long road to get here, though. Watts, 46, came out of retirement at the urging of his teammates, who saw that he was in good shape. With brakeman Marvin Dixon behind him, the two have somehow earned enough points at smaller events to qualify for Sochi and now have raised the all-important money to go as well. 

    The Jamaican bobsled team first captured the hearts of the world when in 1988 they debuted at the Calgary Olympics and represented their tropical country. Back then, they inspired a hit movie. Now, in the age of social media and viral videos, this ultimate underdog story is about to have a brand-new audience.