Winter Olympics 2018: American Breakout Stars to Watch at This Year's Games

Beau Dure@duresportFeatured ColumnistFebruary 7, 2018

Winter Olympics 2018: American Breakout Stars to Watch at This Year's Games

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    As you watch the Olympics in the middle of the night through sleepy eyes, you can be forgiven for not knowing what year it is. Lindsey Vonn? John Shuster? Erin Hamlin? Shani Davis? Kikkan Randall? Shaun White? Lindsey Jacobellis? Are we in South Korea in 2018 or Italy in 2006?

    But as in every Olympics, we'll see new faces and get to know a few more a bit better. Some of these entrants competed (and one won) in Sochi, Russia, in 2014. The common thread is these athletes, no matter their level of fame, are on the verge of taking a Simon Ammann-esque leap into a brighter spotlight when the Winter Olympics officially start Feb. 9 in Pyeongchang.   

Mikaela Shiffrin, Alpine Skiing

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    Yes, Mikaela Shiffrin is already a star. She won the 2013 slalom world championship before she turned 18. She followed up as the youngest-ever Olympic slalom gold medalist in 2014, just before she turned 19. She then grabbed the 2015 and 2017 slalom world championships.

    But she's no longer just one of the best ever at her age. Nor is she simply one of the best ever in slalom. She's now an overall World Cup champion, winning last season by more than 300 points.

    This season? A second straight overall World Cup is all but mathematically certain. 

    With 41 victories, she has already passed the career World Cup win total of one Bode Miller (33), who told Reuters' Philip O'Connor she may be the best racer he's ever seen.

    What can she do in Pyeongchang?

    She'll be the overwhelming favorite in slalom and a strong favorite in giant slalom, the two races in which she racked up a ridiculous streak of eight wins in nine starts (including the hybrid City Event) in December and January. Snow and skis aren't supposed to be that predictable—and there's always a chance of a bad patch of ice or some other piece of bad luck. She has indeed hit a rough patch of results in late January, reminding us that nothing is certain.

    She's not a favorite in downhill or super-G, though she took her first World Cup downhill win in December. But she's good enough in downhill to be the favorite in the combined. Alpine skiing also has a team event.

    If she doesn't leave South Korea in Eric Heiden or Bonnie Blair territory on the all-time medal list, that's OK. Did we mention she's still just 22?

Susan Dunklee, Biathlon

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    Kerstin Joensson/Associated Press

    The U.S. team has never taken an Olympic medal in biathlon, the sport that combines cross-country skiing with shooting. (Each missed shot incurs a penalty of some kind.)

    But it's just one year removed from historic firsts at the World Championships. Lowell Bailey, 36, won the country's first world title, knocking down all 20 shots and gutting out the final lap in the grueling 20-kilometer individual event for gold, one place better than teammate Tim Burke managed in 2013.

    However, we're going with Susan Dunklee because she's younger (31) and newer to the sport—this is "breakout" stars, after all. She's also been slightly more consistent than the U.S. men. Dunklee has steadily climbed the World Cup overall standings since 2014: 23rd, 17th, 14th and 10th. And yes, she broke through in last year's World Championships with a silver in the mass start, the first medal for a U.S. woman.

    No U.S. biathlete is having a great season, but they've shown the capability to dial things up in a big event. Also, the program includes a mixed relay, a nice opportunity for Bailey and Burke to team up with Dunklee and take a shot at the USA's first Olympic medal in this sport.

Jessie Diggins, Cross-Country Skiing

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    Andrea Solero/Associated Press

    The U.S. women have never won a cross-country Olympic medal. But they're getting there.

    Kikkan Randall broke through in the 2009 World Championships with the U.S. women's first medal, a sprint silver. Now, the U.S. women have seven World Championship medals.

    Diggins has contributed to four of them. She combined with Randall in the 2013 team sprint for the USA's only gold and earned bronze in the same event with Sadie Bjornsen last year. Individually, she has two silver medals: the 2015 10-kilometer freestyle and 2017 sprint.

    This season, the 26-year-old became the first U.S. woman to reach the podium in the Tour de Ski, a series of World Cup races that test skiers' versatility. Then she won a 10K freestyle in late January.

    She's a triple threat—sprint, team sprint and 10K freestyle—to end the long U.S. women's drought.     

Matt Hamilton, Curling

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    With the Ron Swanson mustache and the easygoing sense of humor, Matt Hamilton has long been a favorite of curling broadcasters. In the buildup to these Olympics, he has already appeared on The Tonight Show for a game of bar curling with Jimmy Fallon and Jason Sudeikis, along with a Cheetos ad campaign in which he works on his celebrations.

    And thanks to the ongoing expansion of the Olympic program, you can see an awful lot of Hamilton this winter.

    Not only is he the second (delivers the third and fourth rocks and does a lot of sweeping) for John Shuster's men's team, but he and his sister Becca are also the first-ever U.S. mixed doubles team, which will start playing Feb. 8, the day before the opening ceremony.

    If the Hamilton siblings make the playoffs—and they have a good chance—Matt will only have one day off (Feb. 17) from Feb. 8 to Feb. 21. If Shuster's team makes the playoffs—less probable but plausible, given its bronze medal in the 2016 World Championships—he'll play two of the next three days as well.

    And when he's not on the ice, he'll likely be right next to it cheering on Becca, who plays lead (throws first two rocks) for Nina Roth's women's team. They'll also play most days of the Olympics and have an outside chance of playing on the last day in the gold-medal game.

Nathan Chen, Figure Skating

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    You may have seen the clips of a 10-year-old Nathan Chen after he won his division in the 2010 U.S. Championships. Asked when he'd like to be in the Olympics, Chen took a short pause then gave a confident answer: 2018.

    He was right, of course, but he's not just going. He's also a serious contender for gold and a favorite for the podium. His career-best international score of 307.46 points is fourth on the all-time list. His season-best score of 293.79 is second to Japan's Shoma Uno, whom he defeated at the Grand Prix final.

    Last year, he became the first skater to land five quadruple jumps in one program. He did it again this month at the U.S. Championships. In the current scoring system, that's a lot of points.    

Maggie Voisin, Freestyle Skiing

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    Just a couple of days away from competing as the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team in 2014, Maggie Voisin broke her ankle on a training run. The slopestyle skier had more injury problems after that, tearing her ACL in her first event back.

    But she returned in 2016, just in time to take fifth in the Big Air event in Fenway Park. More importantly for her Olympic prep, she took second in a World Cup slopestyle event on the 2018 course.

    She earned a World Cup win the next year and cruised to Olympic qualification in 2018, taking second place behind Norway’s Johanne Killi in a World Cup event in Colorado to nail down her spot. She followed up with X Games gold in late January.

    The comeback will be complete when she competes in South Korea, and the cameras will surely be all over it. But she’s capable of adding some hardware.     

Cayla Barnes, Ice Hockey

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    They couldn't keep her away.

    Cayla Barnes didn't make the U.S. women's hockey Olympic pool in May. Instead, she started her first year at Boston College, going to classes and playing the first games of her college career.

    Then she got a call. Come down and join us. See if you can earn an Olympic spot.

    And she did. The 19-year-old is the youngest player on the roster as the USA tries to dethrone Canada for the first time since 1998.     

    She just wrapped up one of the best youth careers imaginable. She's the first player to win three consecutive gold medals in the Under-18 Women's World Championships, and she was named the best defender in that event in 2016 and 2017. 

    Now that she's set to be an Olympian, she's the youngest player on the U.S. team by a solid 18 months. At 5'1", she's also the shortest. But she's not to be overlooked as the U.S. women try to turn silver into gold.

Maame Biney, Short-Track Speedskating

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    From Ghana by way of Reston, Virginia, Maame Biney is the first black woman to make a U.S. speedskating team. (Erin Jackson, a roller-sports veteran who had only been on ice for four months, became the first black woman on a U.S. long-track team a few weeks later.)

    Biney doesn't have a lot of big international results beyond the junior level, where she placed third in the 500 meters and seventh overall at the 2017 World Junior Championships. But she's not that far away. She's eighth in the 500-meter World Cup rankings, mostly on the strength of a fifth-place finish in Shanghai, where she just missed the four-skater final in a field full of the sport's elite.

    Her performance in the U.S. trials, where she dominated the 500 meters and finished second overall, will give the soon-to-be-18-year-old (Jan. 28) a lot of confidence. She'll be an underdog in South Korea, but in the wild world of short-track skating, anything can happen. If she doesn't medal this year, she should have more opportunities.

    And fans will love her reason for becoming a speedskater, given in her International Skating Union biography: "My figure skating instructor told me that I was going too fast and that I should try short track."

Chloe Kim, Snowboarding

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Chloe Kim's a millennial in the literal sense, as she was born in 2000. You probably would remember her from Sochi if not for the tiny detail that she was too young to compete—even though she was good enough to qualify.

    But if you've followed snowboard halfpipe at all, you know the name:

    • 2015, 2016 and 2018 X Games Aspen champion
    • 2016 X Games Oslo champion (that's a total of three X Games gold medals before she turned 16)
    • First woman to land back-to-back 1080s (scored a perfect 100)

    This season, she's leading the World Cup standings, finishing first, first and second in her three starts. And she landed back-to-back 1080s again for X Games gold.

    She'll also have an advantage over many other U.S. athletes in Pyeongchang: She's a first-generation Korean-American who speaks the language and has relatives in South Korea. Photographers mobbed her on a goodwill tour of the Olympic host country.