The 2014 Winter Olympic Games are set to begin shortly and the entire world will turn its collective eye to Sochi, Russia, where athletes who have been training for years have converged to compete for gold and glory.
Due to the four-year length between Winter Games, there are always a handful of breakout stars entering the mix to replace those that have retired or declined in skill in advanced age.
That will be no different in 2014, so let’s take a look at a few athletes that look poised to bust onto the scene in a big way this February.
J.R. Celski, U.S.A., Men’s Short-Track Speed Skater
Celski isn’t a first-timer in the Olympics, and he’s actually already won two medals for Team USA in Vancouver back in 2010. However, the 23-year-old speed skater was overshadowed by the country’s longtime face of the sport, Apolo Anton Ohno.
Unfortunately, Ohno hung up his skates prior to the Sochi Games and that leaves Celski as the nation’s best hope for a gold in this event.
The double-bronze medalist (1,500 meters and 5,000-meter relay) qualified for all three distances and the relay this year. Celski is ranked in the top 10 for the 1,000-meter and 1,500-meter events, while regarded as a top-20 skater in the super short 500-meter sprint.
Celski is also fully healthy for the first time in his Olympic career, as he had to shake off a devastating—near fatal—thigh injury suffered in the 2009 trials to make a miraculous recovery in time to compete in Canada.
The young man told the Associated Press (via Fox News), that he has his eye on bigger prizes this time around: "My goal was just to get to Vancouver. I did that and the medals were just a bonus. This time, I'm going to Sochi healthy and I'm looking forward to doing some damage."
Expect Celski to claim at least one gold medal and be a regular sight on the podium as he emerges as Ohno’s heir during the upcoming Games.
Sergei Bobrovsky, Russia, Men’s Hockey Goalie
Team Russia has high hopes in hockey this winter, hoping that the comfort of home results in a gold medal for the squad.
The Russian’s success largely hinges on the man in net, Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Bobrovsky. The 25-year-old has been dominant as of late and was on a nine-game winning streak as of Jan. 25.
During that period, “Bob” gave up just 1.77 goals per game and compiled a ridiculous save percentage of .929. He’s emerging as one of the best young netminders in the sport and could explode in popularity if he keeps up this level of play in his homeland of Russia.
While Russia also has the option of sticking Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov in net, Bobrovsky has been the better talent as of late.
Fedor Tyutin, another Russian member of the Blue Jackets and a two-time Olympian, told Tim Warsinskey of The Plain Dealer that it would be great for his national team’s shot at glory if Bob can keep doing what he’s doing:
The most important thing is confidence. For Bob, every save he makes looks easier than the one before. It would be great for Team Russia if he keeps playing the way he's been playing.
The coaches definitely have a tough decision to make, but Bobrovsky should be the starter, and, if his last few games are any indication of how he’ll perform, he’s likely to reward them with some great play.
Spencer O’Brien, Canada, Women’s Slopestyle Snowboarding
The 25-year-old O’Brien is looking to make history by winning the first-ever slopestyle snowboard competition in Olympic history.
O’Brien is Canada’s hope to capture a gold in this event, as she’s an experienced and decorated athlete that is more than capable of breaking through and besting the field.
While she’s yet to grab the gold at the Winter X Games, this British Columbia native took home a gold at the Stoneham World Championships in 2013 and has three gold medals under her belt during the Winter Dew Tour.
O’Brien has been extremely focused on this event, telling Gary Kingston of the Vancouver Sun that she’s spent two years preparing:
The last two years have been all about building for the Olympics, working in the gym to get my body in the best possible shape, learning how to deal with the pressure.
I wasn’t sure I would ever get this opportunity. Now, I’m just so excited for Canada and the rest of the world to take notice of my sport.
She’s coming off a bronze in the X Games women’s slopestyle, so expect her to use that as motivation to improve and go for the gold in Sochi.