The price of great talent is lofty expectations, and many of America’s top Olympians will be competing under the significant weight of medal pressure in Sochi this month.
Some, such as speedskater Shani Davis and Alpine skier Ted Ligety, are headed to Russia seeking to add to past Olympic glory. Others, like figure skater Gracie Gold and skier Mikaela Shiffrin, are looking to make a name for themselves on the international stage.
Whatever their pedigree, the top U.S. Olympians are facing the best in the world under intense pressure, and with little room for error.
Some will undoubtedly thrive in the moment and claim the triumphs fans predict for them. Others, however, will falter under the bright Olympic spotlight and see great expectations disappear in the agony of falling short when the stakes are highest.
No one wearing red, white and blue roots for that to happen, and few people, regardless of nationality, relish the moment when it does. Yet disappointment comes with the Olympic territory. There will be numerous Americans who fall victim to unexpectedly poor performances of their own or great achievements by competitors that simply exceed their efforts.
Here are the top American medal threats that could ultimately disappoint in the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
Event: 1,500 meters
Why Davis is Favored: The American has captured two straight silver medals in the 1,500 meters and is among the best long-track speedskaters in the world.
In addition to seeking his third straight gold medal in the 1,000 meters, Davis has made it well known that he covets gold in the 1,500, and he captured the event in the U.S. Olympic trials last month.
Falling short in the longer competition wouldn't at all cast a shadow on his expected three-peat in the 1,000 meters in Sochi, but it would create a measure of unfinished business in an otherwise stellar Olympic career.
"Any medal at this level would mean a lot to me, preferably gold,” Davis said on NBCSN (per NBC's OlympicTalk). “I go out there, I do the best I can. Hopefully, I’m the best man that given day.”
Why Davis Could Disappoint: It’s not so much how Davis will skate in the 1,500 as it is the competition he faces when he does so.
Mark Tuitert returns to defend the gold medal he won over the American in Vancouver, and Russian Denis Yukov is considered the favorite in the event. Poland’s Zbigniew Brodka will also be a difficult barrier to gold for Davis.
The American has certainly improved in the distance since the Vancouver Games, but the 1,500 is not his best event despite the fact that he has two silver medals in the race.
There’s no doubting his pedigree, but a silver or bronze is more likely for the American, which will still look nice alongside his gold medal in the 1,000 meters.
Why White is Favored: There’s little Shaun White hasn't accomplished in the sport of snowboarding, and with slopestyle making its Olympic debut he’s expected to add another gold medal to his already-impressive resume.
White has won eight medals in X Games slopestyle competition and remains a top threat in the event despite his longevity in the sport.
The skier has all the moves and the technical grit to win gold in Sochi, but he will face stiff competition in Canada’s Mark McMorris and Max Parrot.
White, however, has been scintillating in the Olympics, especially in 2010, where he uncorked the impressive Double McTwist 1260 to capture the gold medal in halfpipe. A similar showing in slopestyle in Sochi is expected.
Why White Could Disappoint: Given its absence from the Olympics until this year, White has focused less on slopestyle and more on the halfpipe, where he has captured gold in the past two Winter Games.
Getting his focus back on the demanding slopestyle competition will be a test, especially considering he did not compete in the X Games last month. Given the challenge he will receive from younger and extremely talented riders, missing out on Sochi gold wouldn't be a complete surprise.
White will almost certainly medal in the event, but a silver and bronze would be a letdown to snowboard enthusiasts who have come to expect so much from the legendary American.
Sport: Figure skating
Event: Ladies competition
Why Gold is a Favorite: Gracie Gold’s incredible performance at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last month made her an immediate medal contender in Sochi. The 18-year-old is gifted, engaging and graceful, and will certainly be among the most-followed athletes in the Winter Games.
Gold, who won the ladies' national championship by a good margin, has replaced Ashley Wagner as the face of U.S. Olympic figure skating, and much is expected of her despite the fact that she is making just her first appearance in the Games.
Promising gold from the American is likely too high a standard, but there’s no doubt that following her breakout performance in Boston she is considered the United States' best bet to medal in Russia. If she does that, her star will rise even faster than it already has over the past several weeks.
Why Gold Could Disappoint: Gold is only 18 years old and is entering the biggest competition of her life in Sochi. Given her age and relative lack of international experience, the medal expectations surrounding her may well prove too much to live up to.
In fact, Gold may not be the best medal candidate on her own team. Wagner was the two-time defending national champion before struggling in Boston, and given her experience may well surprise with a medal challenge in Russia.
Yet, whether fair or not, it’s Gold who enters the Winter Games with all the hype and attention, and living up to that acclaim will be a challenge. She will be in the hunt, but should she fall short of a medal in Sochi, it will be a disappointment for a U.S. ladies team that was shut out in the 2010 Vancouver Games.
Sport: Alpine skiing
Why Shiffrin is Favored: Another young American athlete with potential to pop in her first Olympic appearance, Shiffrin is a significant threat to win gold in the slalom in Sochi.
With American Lindsey Vonn out of the competition, and Julia Mancuso’s strengths being in other events, Shiffrin is the best hope for a U.S. medal in the slalom.
The 18-year-old is a technically sound skier, which will serve her well as she weaves in and out of the tight gates the competition puts forward. She enters the Games in terrific form, having finished fifth overall in the World Cup standings in just her second season in the competition.
Why Shiffrin Could Disappoint: Like Gold, Shiffrin has plenty of pressure on her 18-year-old shoulders, and the absence of Vonn from the Sochi Games isn't making it any easier on her.
The American has gained a wealth of experience during her two successful World Cup seasons, yet it’s her nerves that will be tested in Russia, and there's little room for error during the two races that combined make up the overall slalom score.
If Shiffrin approaches the Olympics the same way she has her other international races, she’s a strong bet for gold. But if she struggles to deal with the bright spotlight that comes with the Games, she may ultimately be fours year away from the breakthrough triumph.
Sport: Alpine skiing
Event: Giant slalom
Why Ligety is Favored: After being denied a medal of any kind in Vancouver, Ligety comes to Sochi looking to lead the U.S. Olympic Alpine team and is among the gold-medal favorites in the men’s giant slalom as well as the super combined.
The American was strong in the World Cup season, finishing third overall, and won the giant slalom, Super-G and super combined at the World Championships. Given that top form, it’s more likely that Ligety performs the way he did in claiming the gold medal in the super combined at the 2006 Turin Olympic Games rather than his disappointing showing in Canada four years ago.
A medal in the super combined would be icing on the cake, but it's gold that the skier must win in the giant slalom. Anything less than that would be a letdown.
Why Ligety Could Disappoint: Ligety vanished in Vancouver, and while it’s unlikely to happen again, the idea at least has to be entertained that the American could once again be in over his skis in Sochi.
He possesses a solid combination of speed and technical skill, but the giant slalom is absolutely littered with talent, and there will be no room for error if Ligety is going to claim the second Olympic gold of his career.
Should he slip up even just a little bit, Austrian Marcel Hirscher will be right there to challenge him for the top spot, as will Frenchman Alexis Pinturault.
Event: 500 and 1,000 meters
Why Richardson is Favored: Heather Richardson wasn't just good at the U.S. Olympic Trials last month, she was dominant in three separate races that transformed her into a real threat to win multiple medals in Sochi.
Richardson, who was a non-factor in her first Olympics four years ago, won the 500-, 1,000- and 1,500-meter events on the long oval against her teammates, and she was especially strong in the two shorter races. With the experience of the Vancouver Games likely to help her, the 24-year-old is the gold-medal favorite in the 1,000 meters and will challenge for the same in the 500-meter race.
Richardson will be pushed by her teammate and friend Brittany Bowe, but if she skates like she did in Salt Lake City several weeks ago, she could carry the U.S. Olympic long-track team to great heights in Russia.
Why Richardson Could Disappoint: While Richardson was brilliant in the trials, she was anything but that in the Vancouver Games, failing to finish in the top five in any of her three races against the world’s elite speedskaters.
The American will certainly face exactly that on the big oval in Sochi. South Korean Lee Sang-Hwa is a handful in the 500 and is the defending gold medalist in the event. Bowe, who finished second to Richardson in all three races at the trials, and Norway’s Irene Wust are among the elite in the 1,000 meters.
Given that strong competition, Richardson needs to avoid the uneven skates she suffered in Canada four years ago, which, given the pressure of the Olympics, could be easier said than done.
Event: Men’s competition
Why the United States is favored: The United States advanced all the way to the gold-medal game in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics before losing in overtime to the mighty Canadians, and the Yanks feature more than enough talent on their roster this time around to repeat that effort.
While perhaps a little light on scoring, the United States will be strong defensively. Likewise, the team should be sure-handed enough in goal behind the tandem of Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller, even against all the firepower teams like Russia and Canada will bring to the competition.
Provided the Americans can come together in a limited period of time, they will absolutely be a medal threat in Russia, with an outside shot at gold.
Why the Americans Could Disappoint: The 2010 U.S. Olympic team benefited from competing on a NHL-sized rink in Vancouver, but will not enjoy those same comforts on the ice in Sochi.
The return to the bigger international rink, which adds an extra 15 feet in width, will put more emphasis on speed and cross-seam passing, and allows for different shooting angles that the U.S. goalies will have to quickly adapt to.
The rink is the same one that Europeans and Canadians have typically played on growing up, so professionals on teams like Russia, Canada and Sweden will find it easier to adjust than their U.S. counterparts.
If the Americans get off to a bumpy start, it would make the medal rounds much more difficult due to seeding, provided they make it as far as expected.
Sport: Short-track speedskating
Event: 1,000 and 1,500 meters
Why Celski is favored: J.R. Celski is already an Olympic bronze medalist, and he was terrific in the U.S. Olympic trials in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters. If he can handle the pressure of being the face of American short-track speedskating, a similar performance could be forthcoming in Sochi.
The talented American has the speed and the track strategy to win multiple medals in Russia. Playing second chair to Apolo Anton Ohno in the 2010 Winter Games, Celski won bronze in the 1,500 meters and was a central figure in the U.S. relay team that also captured a bronze medal.
Given all the controversy that has surrounded the short-track team in the wake of the 2012 forced resignation of U.S. short-track coach Jae Su Chun, whom Celski was no fan of, a solid performance by the American is critical to an unexpectedly strong showing by the American men in Russia.
Why Celski Could Disappoint: As if trying to lead an inexperienced short-track team wasn't tough enough, Celski has the added pressure of taking the place of Ohno, who is the most-decorated American male Winter Olympian of all time.
Celski's Vancouver experience is undoubtedly a plus, but there is a big difference between providing depth to an Olympic team and leading it, as he must do in Russia.
If the role proves too big for the 23-year-old, things could go wrong quickly in Sochi, and Celski could find himself shut out in his strongest events in the Winter Games.
Why Wise is Favored: As freestyle skiing makes its Olympic debut, David Wise is a strong favorite to claim Olympic gold in the popular halfpipe.
The veteran skier is grounded enough to handle the pressure of the Olympics and boasts more than enough talent to tackle a deep field of skiers. The event, which combines aerial maneuvers with moguls, requires the type of creativity, speed and precision that the skier has brought to the X Games and other international competitions over the past several years.
Provided he’s healthy and focused, the Reno native will be difficult to topple in the inaugural event.
Why Wise Could Disappoint: The competition Davis faces, even on his own team, will be fierce in Sochi, meaning even the slightest mistake could keep him from reaching the finals.
American Aaron Blunck has been on fire heading into the Olympics and may well be the biggest barrier to gold for Davis. The 17-year-old won a Dew Tour event and an Olympic qualifier in December.
Likewise, 18-year-old American Torin Yater-Wallace is rising fast through the freestyle ranks, and if he's fully recovered from a pair of broken ribs could also be a gold-medal surprise in Russia.
The top non-American threat to Wise is Frenchman Kevin Rolland, who finished second to the U.S. skier in the X Games last month.
Sport: Men’s bobsleigh
Event: The four-man and two-man competitions
Why the U.S. is Favored: Not only are the Americans the 2010 gold medalists in the four-man bobsled, they are led by driver Steve Holcomb, who was virtually unbeatable in 2013.
The United States was dominant in its emotional victory in Canada four years ago and will undoubtedly bring the same determination and energy to Sochi this time around in the four-man competition.
The United States will also have a new sled to debut this month in the two-man race, which the team hopes will further increase its speed and handling in the challenging event.
The United States hasn't won gold in the two-man bobsled in 78 years, but given its confidence and new ride, it’s a strong candidate to deliver a double-dip of gold in both competitions.
Why the U.S. Could Disappoint: It’s one thing to expect a repeat gold-medal performance in the four-man bobsled competition, but to beat the powerful Germans in the two-man race as well might be asking too much.
Given its nearly eight-decade hiatus from gold-medal status in the two-man event, the United States has to prove it can compete deep into the competition regardless of its new sled.
Likewise, with its victory in the event four years ago, the Americans are now the hunted in the four-man bobsled and will certainly get the Germans' best effort there, as well.