The 2010 Winter Olympics from Vancouver are just two weeks away.
Shaun White and Team USA will look to continue their dominance on the half pipe; Lindsey Jacobellis will look to make amends for a showboating error that cost her a gold medal in Torino; and Lindsey Vonn will look to stand atop the alpine skiing world at the third time of asking.
America will likely move into second on the all-time list of medal winners in 2010, moving ahead of the Soviet Union and looking to close the gap on runaway leaders Norway. Team USA brought home 25 medals from Torino four years ago, their best ever haul on international soil, and a strong run north of the border could help them add to the 78 gold metals captured over the years.
In part one of my two-part look at America’s chances in Vancouver, here are the movers are shakers, the contenders and the pretenders, for the seven snow sports of the 2010 Games.
There are five different events in the alpine skiing program, each of which will be contested by the men and women.
The downhill and super-G events are known as the speed events, and medals are awarded purely on a “quickest down the mountain” basis. In the more technical giant slalom and slalom events, athletes make two runs and racers’ times are combined. In the super-combined event, changed slightly for this year’s Games, skiers make one downhill run and one slalom run, with medals awarded to the racers with the fastest combined times.
Austria has historically been the dominant force in alpine skiing, having won twice as many medals than every other nation (101) other than Switzerland. But all eyes will be on Lindsey Vonn, who had a headline crash in Torino four years ago, as she looks to quench her thirst for an Olympic medal on her third attempt.
Vonn is currently ranked No. 1 in the 2009-10 FIS Alpine World Cup standings. She won the women’s downhill event at Lake Louise in Canada and the super combined race at Val d’Iserein France in December, and she followed it up with downhill and super-G victories in Haus im Ennstal in Austria and at Italy’s Cortina d Ampezzo at the start of 2010.
25-year-old Vonn, an Olympian in 2002 and 2006, is still searching for her first Olympic medal, despite winning the World Championship twice. She has dominated in all five World Cup downhill races this season, and she’ll be looking to cap February off in style in Vancouver.
Leanne Smith from North Conway, N.H. is probably America’s next best hope of an alpine skiing medal, while Bode Miller on the men’s side will be looking to put a disappointing 2006 Games in Torino behind him and build on the two silver medals he captured eight years ago in Salt Lake City.
German Maria Riesch, ranked second overall in the World Cup standings, is a close personal friend of Vonn as well as the American’s biggest challenger in the downhill and slalom speed events. Defending World Champion Kathrin Zettel of Austria is accomplished in both slalom and giant slalom, and Sweden’s Anja Parson, a five-time medallist, can never be discounted.
Janica Kostelic, who defended her combined title and won a super-G silver medal in Torino will not be competing on the newly-designed Whistler Creekside course in Vancouver.
Chances of a Gold in Vancouver: 80 percent
The biathlon combines cross-country skiing with rifle shooting. There are five events scheduled for the 2010 Winter Olympics: individual, sprint, pursuit, mass start, and relay, where the format is the same for the men’s and women’s competition with only the distances varying.
Team USA has never won a medal in the biathlon—one of only two droughts for the red, white, and blue in the Winter Olympics—but a trio of New Yorkers are hoping to change all that in Vancouver.
Returning Olympian Tim Burke, Lowell Bailey, and Haley Johnson represent America’s best chances in the two-pronged event. Burke finished second in the 20km individual race in Ostersund in Sweden at the end of 2009, and he became the first American to lead the World Cup standings when he wore the yellow bid earlier this month.
Without the pressure of the eyes of a nation, Burke and co. might have a legitimate shot at picking up a medal in one of the four men’s events (10km sprint, 12.5km pursuit, 20km individual, and 15km mass start) north of the border.
Norway’s duo of Ole Einar Bjorndalen and Emil Hegle Svendsen make a gold medal unlikely for Burke, but if he shoots well, there’s every chance of him being in the mix.
The women unfortunately are less likely to break their 18-year biathlon famine—although Johnson had a top-30 finish in a World Cup event last month—and a team medal in either the men’s or women’s relay is out of the question because of the strength of nations like Russia, Austria, Sweden, Germany, and Norway.
Chances of a Gold in Vancouver: 15 percent
Cross-country skiing involves athletes skiing over different terrains in two different styles. There is the “classical” style where athletes glide across a prepared track that has parallel grooves cut into the snow, and there is “freestyle”which is move like ice skating where skiers transfer their weight over a smoothed course.
There are 12 events in Vancouver, six for the men and six for the women. The events, which specify whether you must ski in the freestyle or classical style, are the same for both men and women, but the distances vary.
America will send 10 athletes to Vancouver—eight who were allocated a roster spot and two more by quota re-allocation.
Kris Freeman is America’s best hope in the men’s competition, while Kikkan Randall will lead the charge for the women.
Freeman, from Andover, N.H., is the top distance racer in the country and he’ll be hoping for a medal when he takes his poles for the third time on the Olympic stage. He is a five-time World Champion, and he will have his best chances of a medal in the 15km freestyle or the 50km classical race.
For the women, Kikkan Randall is the USA’s best hope. She’s in the top 40 in the World Cup sprint standings, and she has been on the podium twice in 51 World Cup starts, most notably her second-place finish in Liberec last year.
She also finished an impressive ninth in the sprint event in Torino in 2006 after coming 44th in Salt Lake City in 2002.
Petter Northug is one of Freeman’s biggest rivals at the games. The Norweigien 24-year-old, who won three gold medals in last year’s World Championships, is arguably the favourite in four individual events in Vancouver. He’s the current Tour leader and world No. 1, and everything points to more success at Whistler.
In the 15km race, don’t discount Italian Pietro Piller Cottrer. He is a strong distance skier and was part of the Italian team which took gold in the relay in Torino four years ago.
Andrus Veerpalu from Estonia is one of the ones to watch in the 50kn event. The veteran, who turns 39 next week, will be competing in his sixth Olympic Games, and he’ll be favored to come away with a medal of some color after winning gold at the 15km distance twice before.
Randall will have to overcome the likes of Charlotte Kalla, Petra Madjic, and Justyna Kowalczyk if she wants to reach the podium in Vancouver.
22-year-old Kalla is widely touted as Sweden’s best hopes of a cross country champion in more than four decades, while Slovakian Majdic is a two-time defending spring champion at the World Cup. She came runner-up in the overall standings last winter.
Majdic lost out to Kowalczyk in the World Cup, the woman who also won Poland’s first ever Olympic medal in cross-country skiing in Torino in 2006. She won a pair of gold medals at the Worlds, so she will head to Whistler Olympic Park as a firm favourite.
Chances of a Gold in Vancouver: 20 percent
There are three different events in the 2010 Olympic program: Moguls, aerials, and ski cross. Men and women compete in all three.
The mogul event will see skiers racing down a hill over a course of large bumps, making sharp turns while keeping their knees bent. There are also two ramps which send the skier into the air where they are expected to perform flips and twists. Skiers are judged on speed and style.
The aerial competition is one of the most exciting events on the Winter Olympics schedule. Skiers fly down a slope and over a concave ramp, propelling them up to 50ft into the air to give them enough time to perform multiple flips and twists before landing the other side. Get ready to hear a lot about the lay-full-full, lay-tuck-full, and double-full-full-full. Tune in to this—you’ll be glad you did.
The ski cross is a new event for 2010 and pits four racers against each other in a first-to-the-line battle over jumps and turns.
Team USA will go into the Olympics feeling confident. Four of the team’s women swept the top four spots at Lake Placid in upstate New York last week, and Jeret Peterson—a two-time Olympian and seven time World Champion—says he is looking to push the envelope with his trademark three-flip, five-twist jump.
Hannah Kearney will spearhead a strong mogul team in her second Olympic Games. She failed to live up to expectations in 2006 despite entering the games as the World Champion, but a strong showing on Whiteface Mountain has her name being thrown out once again as a possible medallist.
She has the speed and air assault to dominate the mogul, and it’s likely that the US will have a great start to the competition when Kearney takes to the mountain on Day One of the competition. Shannon Bahrke, Michelle Roark, and Heather McPhie could also challenge for spots in the top 10.
Also watch out for Emily Cook in the aerial event. She came in fourth in the 2009 World Championships and will be competing in her second Olympic Games. She is a strong medal contender, even if she is unlikely to strike gold.
Jeret Peterson, who has never placed better than seventh in his previous two trips to the Games, may represent the best chance for the men in the aerial competition. Talk will center around him landing “The Hurricane” his signature quintuple spinning triple flip. If the conditions are right and he pulls it off, his daredevil approach to his sport may just be worth it.
If the Americans hope to win a medal in the men’s aerial, a feat they failed for the first time in Torino four years ago, they may have to withstand the barrage of Canadian trio Steve Omischl, Kyle Nissen, and Ryan Blais.
Omischl has stood on the World Championship podium four times, including the last three years on the very top step. Nissen finished fifth at the 2006 Olympics and fourth in the 2009 World Cup aerials, and Blais rebounded from injury in 2007 to finish seventh in 2008.
Chances of a Gold in Vancouver: 60 percent
This event combines cross-country skiing and ski jumping—two events in one day. It is a male-only event and features three events: two individual events distinguished by the size of the hill, and a team competition.
Bill Demong and Todd Lodwick will be flying the flag for Team USA. They have competed in nine Olympic Games between them and both have won the World Championships.
Demong won the bronze medal in last year’s World Cup, and he is excellent on the large hill; Lodwick took the gold in the 2009 normal hill competition.
Many fans of the sport will know Demong for one of two reasons: as the 22-year-old star forced to miss a year of action after fracturing his skull in 2002, or as the member of the American team that lost his bib in the 2009 World championships, and thus getting disqualified. He’s looking to set the record straight in February and be remembered for all the right reasons.
Johnny Spillane adds depth to the American roster for the team competition, and pundits are saying this is probably the best chance the country has ever had for its first Nordic combined medal.
Individually or as a team, the US really does have more than a punchers’ chance.
France’s Jason Lamy Chappuis is the skier in form heading to Canada. He won his fifth World Cup event of the season last weekend and currently holds a 380-point lead over Felix Gottland at the top of the international standings.
34-year-old Gottwald came out of retirement last May, adding an extra threat to the Americans’ chances. He has won two gold medals, a silver medal, and three bronze medals in four Olympics, and he gives the Austrian team a dangerous combination of skill and experience.
Meanwhile, Finland’s Anssi Koivuranta, the defending World Cup champion, is as good as anybody on his day, and Notway’s Magnus Moan will likely be in contention in both the normal and large hill events.
Chances of a Gold in Vancouver: 75 percent
There are three events in Vancouver in the ski jumping class: two individual events and a team event. As with the Nordic combined event, it is contested by the men only.
The individual events are separated into two categories: the normal hill and the large hill. Athletes are awarded points based on the length of their jump and their style, both in-flight and on the landing. The team event is also held on the large hill, where the scores of four members are combined to produce a grand total.
The US is sending three athletes to Vancouver to compete in the ski jumping events: Nick Alexander, teenager Peter Frenette, and Anders Johnson.
The bad news is that none of them will seriously contend for a medal.
Johnson, who became the youngest American representative on the Olympic ski jumping team when he competed as a 16-year-old in 2006, will look to improve on his 40th position in Torino, but it is doubtful whether he will even be in serious contention for a top-30 finish.
Johnson finished just inside the top 50 at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Liberec in 2009, and he has never finished better than 29th in a World Cup meeting. An ACL injury slowed down his Olympic preparations last year, but he insists he is fit and ready to go. Even a healthy Johnson is no match for more than two dozen other jumpers.
With Team USA unlikely to feature at the business end of any of the competitions, there are scores of ski jumpers you could expect to finish ahead of the American trio.
Gregor Schlierenzauer, a winner of a record 13 World Cup events in 2009, is definitely one to watch in Vancouver, as are fellow Austrians Thomas Morgenstern (large hill) and Wolfgang Loitzl (normal hill). Expect the Austrian team to win gold or silver in the team event and have at least one jumper on the podium in each of the individual competitions.
Swiss Harry Potter look-alike Simon Ammann, who burst onto the scene with individual victories in the normal and large hill eight years ago, can also be counted on for an impressive Olympics, and Finnish nine-time world champion Janne Ahonen could add some serious European spice to an already-bursting top five.
Chances of a Gold in Vancouver: Two percent
There are six events on the Vancouver snowboarding program, three for the men and three for the women. They are the halfpipe, parallel giant slalom, and snowboard cross.
America took home seven of the 18 snowboarding medals at the 2006 Olympics, including three golds.
Shaun White and Danny Kass went one-two in the halfpipe for the men, while Hannah Teter and Gretchen Bleiler replicated the feat in the women’s event. Seth Wescott took gold in the snowboard cross, while Team USA also took silver in the women’s cross (Lindsey Jacobellis) and bronze in the parallel giant slalom (Rosey Fletcher).
Jacobellis is once again one of the main gold medal contenders in Vancouver. Few will forget the crash that cost her gold four years ago when, with a big lead and the finish line in sight, Jacobellis mis-timed the landing on a showboat trick and hit the ground, allowing Switzerland’s Tanya Frieden to win gold.
Shaun White will also head into the Games as one of the favorites for a gold medal. One of Team USA’s more high-profile athletes, White will look to defend his Olympic championship with a lot of confidence.
He dominated the field at the US Snowboarding Grand Prix last week, finishing one point off a perfect score after nailing his “Double McTwist,” a jump including one-and-a-half horizontal flips packed inside two vertical flips.
On the women’s side, Kelly Clark is also in good form, winning her third half pipe event in the last four outings. The 2002 Olympic champion should have scooped a medal in Torino, but she tried a 900-degree spin to try and snatch gold when a 720-spin would have likely landed her at least bronze. She crashed and finished fourth. With that behind her, she is one of the favorites for another gold next month.
Two teammate who may have something to say about that are 23-year-old Hannah Teter and the covergirl of US snowboarding Gretchen Bleiler.
Teter, the defending champion and humanitarian from Vermont will more than likely be on the podium in Vancouver, while Bleiler is coming into form at just the right time after winning her first win of the season on Mammoth Mountain in California earlier this month.
Team USA’s competition could come from within: from friends and teammates. That said, there are still a number of athletes, particularly in the women’s competition, that could ruffle some feathers.
In the half pipe competition, China’s Liu Jiayu represents the biggest threat to an American sweep. She is the 2009 World Champion and could ruin more than one American dream in Canada mid-February.
22-year-old Australian Torah Bright could also upset the established order on the half pipe. She beat Kelly Clark to the gold medal three times in 2009, and she could very well bring the Aussies their first Olympic snowboarding medal.
Chances of a Gold in Vancouver: 95 percent
In part two I will preview the ice sports: bobsled, curling, figure skating, hockey, luge, short track, skeleton, and speed skating.