Winter Olympics 2014: Top 10 Breakout Stars from Sochi
As a nation, as a world, every four years we sit down together to watch some of the best athletes on Earth compete in obscure and often dangerous sports. It's a time for things that normally don't infiltrate the public's consciousness, a time for sleds hurtling at 80 miles per hour, snowboarders flying through the air and Eastern Europeans skiing like demons with rifles strapped to their backs.
The Winter Olympics is different—and mesmerizing.
Every four years, too, stars are born. We watch with intense interest, living and breathing these athletes and their powerful stories for weeks. Failure and success can, sometimes, be equally compelling. We soak in the pathos, absorbing some of the hits and sharing in the joy of success.
Things happen, inexplicable things, that we can never forget. The tears in Dan Jansen's eyes. The twirling and whirling grace that was Dorothy Hamill. Lindsey Jacobellis and her self-destructive stunt in Turin that cost her gold.
There are stars born during the Olympics who never stop shining. Here are 10 from Sochi. Have some more in mind? Let us know in the comments.
T.J. Oshie (Ice Hockey)
The fact that the United States and Russia both flamed out spectacularly, neither managing to win a hockey medal in these Olympics, does little to erase Oshie's spectacular heroism in the shootout classic between the two teams in group play.
His penalty-shot prowess did more than win a game—it launched Oshie to stardom. His agent, Matthew Oates, told The Associated Press his phone was blowing up with sponsors looking to make Oshie their new poster boy.
''It has been a frenzy,'' Oates said in an Associated Press interview. ''...we'll sort through that and take our time after T.J. gets back."
Alexandre Bilodeau (Freestyle Skiing)
When Canada's Alex Bilodeau won his gold medal in the moguls, he made a beeline into the crowd. He wasn't looking for the hottest girl he could find or the television cameras.
He was searching for his true inspiration.
It wasn't his coach, mentor or a hero from Olympics past. It was his older brother Frederic, who was born with cerebral palsy.
"Whatever I do in life, my brother is my real inspiration,” Alex said via the Daily Mail. “Just like you and I, [Frederic] has dreams and most of them are not realizable to him...With his motivation, he would be four-time Olympic champion. Every step is so hard for him in life and I have an easy path and I need to go after and do the best I can just out of respect to him...He is my everyday inspiration.”
Meryl Davis and Charlie White (Figure Skating)
Meryl Davis and Charlie White were a known quantity coming into Sochi, at least among figure-skating aficionados. But there's a difference between silver-medalist fame and the notoriety that follows a legend.
Davis and White, with their glorious and unimpeachable performance, have entered truly rarefied air, mentioned right alongside icons like Torville and Dean. Their run in Sochi was so incredible, it completely negated a budding controversy regarding judging impropriety.
Was there a backroom deal to give Davis and White gold? In the end, it didn't matter. They were too good to deny. In a sport that seems to have controversy in its DNA, White and Davis made sure their gold-medal win was beyond dispute.
And their 15 minutes seem destined to continue. Is Dancing with the Stars next?
"Why not?" Davis said, telling US Weekly, per Esther Lee and Jennifer Peros, she'd love to join choreographer Derek Hough on the show. "I mean, if we were invited ... we would love to do it!"
Mikaela Shiffrin (Alpine Skiing)
U.S. slalom skier Mikaela Shiffrin has spunk. Just 18 years old, she didn't let the moment get to her. As the camera zoomed in during her Olympic debut, she turned and winked to the world before launching herself down the hill on her way to glory.
And, apparently, one gold medal is not enough. She's thinking about 2018 already and has some grand ambitions.
"I'm dreaming of the next Olympics, winning five gold medals," she said in a press conference. "Which sounds really crazy. Sorry I just admitted that to you all."
Iouri Podladtchikov (Snowboard)
Sochi was supposed to be a victory lap for snowboarding legend Shaun White. Now famous enough he can travel the world with his vanity "band" and sell clothes to my children at Target, White almost felt bigger than the competition.
But the halfpipe isn't impressed by mere reputation. It demands courage and skill. And, in Russia, it was Swissman Iouri Podladtchikov who delivered.
His tricks included a Frontside 540 and a Backside Double Cork. But it was the "Yolo" that secured his medal. Four 360 degree rotations and two flips? No biggie at least according to Podladtchikov.
“It’s my hardest tricks all put together in a combo,” Podladtchikov told The New York Times, nonchalantly describing his gold-medal-winning performance.
When you put it that way, I guess, it all sounds so simple.
Kate Hansen (Luge)
Kate Hansen may not have medaled in the luge, but her infectious need to dance made her one of the Games most beloved new stars. Head phones on, body shaking, Hansen was oblivious to the world.
But the world certainly noticed her.
Hansen's pre-race shimmy to Beyonce touched even the Queen B herself. And, as if to erase any doubts about her it-girl status, Hansen and Jimmy Kimmel pranked the world, convincing people, briefly, that there was a wolf prowling her Sochi hotel.
Sage Kotsenburg (Snowboard)
Sage Kotsenburg was one of Sochi's first gold medalists. His win feels like a lifetime ago. But let us never forget that he seemed like one of the chillest bros who ever chilled. How chill? According to Grantland, he once used the word “stoked” 14 times in a single press conference.
That's pretty chill.
A man of simple desires, Kotsenburg wanted one thing more than any other in this world—another medal, this one made of bacon. With the help of talk show host Conan O'Brien, that dream came true. And aren't dreams what the Olympic Games are all about?
Julia Lipnitskaia (Figure Skating)
Yes, her countrywoman Adelina Sotnikova stole the gold from South Korea's Yuna Kim. But, when we look back at the Games, it was Julia Lipnitskaia who stole our hearts.
Her poise, confidence, grace and Gumby-like powers wowed the entire world in the team competition. Sochi was a lesson, one I'm sure she'll take in stride. Tears may have lined her face after failure, but that's simply fuel for greatness.
Just 15, there's no doubt in my mind that in 2018 she will be the prohibitive favorite to take home the gold.
Gus Kenworthy (Freestyle Skiing)
Gus Kenworthy is coming home with the Olympic medal he dreamed of, a silver in slopestyle skiing. He'll also have some unexpected excess baggage to pick up when he arrives in Telluride, Colo.—five stray puppies he adopted in Sochi.
Stray dogs were a problem for the Russian government prior to the Games. Their solution was an eradication campaign, including poisoning the poor pooches, according to Ivan Watson of CNN (h/t Victoria Dawson Hoff of Elle). Kenworthy had a more worthy solution—find them a home.
"I may not keep them all for myself," he told the press. "But I do want to bring them back to the States."
Ted Ligety may have stood higher up on the medal stand. But how many puppies did Ted Ligety adopt? Kenworthy is a gold medalist where it counts most—in adorability.
Johnny Weir (Announcer)
Johnny Weir became a legitimate star in Sochi, transcending the world of sports and entering the mainstream of American culture. Much of the focus, of course, has been on his furs, gauche colors and "Mr. T jewelry" that have combined to earn Weir major style points.
But Weir is much more than another pretty face. The real revelation has been his announcing chops. He and partner Tara Lipinski not only put you in the head of the performers on the ice, but they also articulated the sport's myriad of rules and point deductions clearly.
That seems like a little thing, but viewers are often tossed into the deep end when watching the Winter Olympics. We don't know exactly what's going on, can't distinguish one jump from another and don't understand how points are tabulated. Most figure-skating announcers do little to cure that.
Weir is different. I learned much more about world-class figure skating listening to him and Lipinski for a week than I've learned listening to NBC "A-team" announcer Scott Hamilton for 20 years. Hearing both, Weir in the morning and Hamilton at night, makes the differences between the two stark.
Hamilton is the 1980s personified. Weir is now. It's time for a change—and Weir is able and willing to lead NBC's Olympic coverage into the 21st century.