Winter Olympics 2026: Stars to Watch for Milan Cortina

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2022

Winter Olympics 2026: Stars to Watch for Milan Cortina

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    Simon Bruty/Getty Images

    That's a wrap.

    On Sunday, the curtain falls on the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing after three weeks filled with thrills, spills and controversy.

    Next up: Italy in 2026. The Alpine town of Cortina d'Ampezzo, which mounted the 1956 Winter Games, will be co-hosting along with the fashion mecca of Milan.

    As part of a plan to try to incorporate more pre-existing infrastructure rather than building brand-new facilities, the 2026 Winter Olympics will have the broadest footprint ever, with event venues spread out across nearly 10,000 square miles in northern Italy.

    Along with all your favorite events, one sport will be new on the agenda: ski mountaineering. As the name suggests, it's a grueling mix of climbs, cross-country and downhill skiing, over rougher terrain than we see on traditional courses. And it's quickly gaining popularity—especially in Europe.

    While the shine from Beijing is still radiating, here's a look at some of the athletes we can't wait to watch in four years' time. 

Jack Hughes: Men's Ice Hockey

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    Petr David Josek/Associated Press

    Country: USA

    Age In 2026: 24

    Why You Should Watch

    With any luck, NHL players will return to the Winter Olympics in 2026, after missing out on Pyeongchang and Beijing. Early reports suggest that the parties involved are already working toward finalizing those arrangements.

    If everything works out, it will be a 12-year gap since Canada captured gold in Sochi, on a squad led by Carey Price and Drew Doughty, and T.J. Oshie dazzled with his shootout heroics for Team USA.

    That means a long list of NHL stars will be suiting up for their first Games. 

    Don't sleep on Canada's Connor McDavid, who will be 29 in four years' time, or Auston Matthews at age 28. But arguably the most intriguing character could be Jack Hughes—the ringmaster of a gang of young guns who are changing the game both on and off the ice. 

    Before he was selected first overall in the 2019 NHL draft, Hughes hit the international hockey trifecta, skating for Team USA at the 2019 World Junior Championship, World U18 Tournament and Men's World Championship. At 20, he's a point-per-game player with the New Jersey Devils. In four years' time, he should be one of the NHL's top stars.

    Hughes dazzles with his slick puck skills, and is just as engaging when interacting with fans and media. That could make him an Olympic superhero when Team USA aims to grab gold in men's hockey for the first time since 1980.

Sarah Fillier: Women's Ice Hockey

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    Fred Lee/Getty Images

    Country: Canada

    Age In 2026: 25

    Why You Should Watch

    Canada's gold medal-winning women's hockey team was led by familiar faces like Marie-Philip Poulin and Brianne Jenner. The breakout star was forward Sarah Filler, who finished second in tournament scoring with eight goals in seven games.

    In a country with a deep talent pool, Fillier was a freshman at Princeton University when she cracked Canada's senior women's roster at age 18, a rarity. Ever since, she has continued to impress fans, coaches and her teammates.

    "She's eager to be out there and eager to be the best," Canada's captain Poulin said as the Olympic tournament began. "She's the next one for sure. She wants to be there. She wears the Maple Leaf with a lot of pride and it's amazing to see."

Nathan Chen: Men's Figure Skating

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    Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

    Country: USA

    Age In 2026: 26

    Why You Should Watch

    After a disappointing fifth-place finish in his Olympic debut in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Nathan Chen reached the top of the podium in Beijing. The Salt Lake City native successfully parlayed his three world championship titles into Olympic gold, setting a new world record in the men's short program before landing five quad jumps during his stunning free skate to the music of Elton John. 

    Chen also helped the United States snag silver in figure skating's team event.

    As if it's not enough to be training as an elite athlete, Chen is also majoring in majoring in statistics and data science at Yale University. He now plans to return, after pausing his studies in the fall of 2020.

    Chen was noncommittal when asked about his skating future after his gold-medal win. It's not uncommon for the sport's top stars to take some time off at the end of an Olympic cycle, then return as the next Games draw near.

    Generally speaking, men's singles skaters have relatively long careers compared to their female counterparts. For example, two-time defending gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu just competed in his third Winter Olympics at age 27.

    Chen is the first U.S. men's figure skating gold medalist since Evan Lysacek in 2010.

Eileen Gu: Women's Freeskiing

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    Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

    Country: China

    Age In 2026: 22

    Why You Should Watch

    Eileen Gu deserves a gold medal for her poise alone.

    She was arguably the most hyped athlete at the Beijing Games. Born in the U.S. but competing for her mother's birth country, China, Eileen Gu performed superbly in her three freeskiing events, all while remaining unfazed by the avalanche of media attention that came her way.

    In the biggest moments of her career to date, Gu delivered. She earned gold medals in big air and halfpipe and a silver in slopestyle, cementing her spot as one of the most memorable athlete of the 2022 Winter Olympics. 

    Now just 18, Gu will have more opportunities to add to her Olympic legacy—while taking her relatively young discipline to even greater heights and using her visibility to help grow opportunities for girls and women in winter sports, particularly in China.

Nils Van Der Poel: Men's Speed Skating

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Country: Sweden

    Age In 2026: 29

    Why You Should Watch

    As athletes have navigated two years of pandemic-related training challenges leading up to Beijing, it should come as no surprise that we haven't seen many world records broken—especially in the timed sports.

    One athlete who raised the bar is Swedish speed skater Nils van der Poel. The double gold medallist set a new world record in his 10,000 meter race, and new Olympic records in both 5,000 meter and 10,000 meter distances.

    By doing so, van der Poel became the first Swede to win gold in speed skating since 1988. It was an incredible improvement from his Olympic debut in Pyeongchang, where he skated only the 5,000-meter race and finished 14th.

    With another four years of training, hopefully in more athlete-friendly circumstances, it's exciting to see how much further van der Poel can push the limits of what is possible in his discipline.

Ester Ledecka: Women's Skiing and Snowboarding

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    Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

    Country: Czech Republic

    Age In 2026: 30

    Why You Should Watch

    Ester Ledecka is blazing her own trail on the mountains—performing at the highest level in two distinct sports, skiing and snowboarding.

    After making her Olympic debut as an 18-year-old snowboarder in Sochi in 2014, Ledecka became the first Winter Olympics athlete ever to win two events that used different equipment in Pyeongchang. She captured gold in the super-G in alpine skiing and the parallel giant slalom in snowboarding.

    In Beijing, Ledecka successfully defended her snowboarding title to claim a third gold medal. In two of her three Alpine skiing events, she narrowly missing the podium, finishing fourth in combined and fifth in super-G.

    Ledecka's approach to Olympic sport is unparalleled. We can't wait to see what she has up the sleeve of her skin-tight speed suit when she gets to Italy in four years' time.

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