U.S. should grab a lot of gold
The time has come. The nominations are complete and for 237 U.S. athletes, the time to compete is here. The Winter Olympics begin next Thursday at Russia’s Black Sea coastal city of Sochi.
So far, the buzz has been mainly about security matters and the cost of the games. Now it is time for the competitions, which begin with figure skating, freestyle skiing and snowboard events.
The games will continue through Sunday, Feb, 23. with competition in 15 disciplines with 98 gold medals to be awarded. There are 12 new events in the Games this year.
As a seaside city, Sochi, like Vancouver in 2010, has a mild climate, so it will host the arena events. The sliding sports competition will be held in the nearby Caucuses Mountains, with a new rail shuttle system moving between the two.
This is not a big year for area competitors. Ski jumper Anders Johnson and snowboardercross competitor Jackie Hernandez have local connections, but neither lives here. There are two coaches with local ties — Bill Enos, who grew up at the Maple Ridge Ski Area in Rotterdam, is the men’s slopestyle boarder coach, and Chris Beckmann of Altamont is a strength coach for the U.S. Alpine team.
There are a number of competitors from Vermont and the Adirondacks, including two of my personal favorites — Bill Demong, who is from Vermontville, near Saranac Lake, in Nordic combined and Hannah Kearney, freestyle mogul skier from Norwich, Vt. Both are articulate, gracious athletes and both have won Olympic gold medals in the past.
My favorites in the competition include bobsled driver Steve Holcomb, the defending Olympic gold medalist in the four-man event and the current overall world champion. Holcomb, from Park City, Utah, is good-natured and humble, as well as talented, and, with a round shape and receding hairline, he should be a favorite of full-figured guys everywhere.
At one time, the goal of many U.S. Olympians was just to compete in the Games. Those days are long gone. The objective now is to win. For U.S. competitors with a good chance to stand on the podium in Sochi, I asked some friends who follow the sliding sports closely to give me their picks for medal contenders.
Sandy Caligiore of Lake Placid has been involved with the Olympics since 1980, and this year will be the press
liaison on site for the bobsled, luge and skeleton events. Barring a rash of upsets, he should hear the “Star Spangled Banner” played at the Sanki Sliding Center.
According to Caligiore, the leading contenders for gold are Holcomb driving both the two-man and four-man bobsled, Elana Meyers with Aja Evans in the women’s bobsled event and Noelle Pikus-Pace in women’s skeleton. Nick Cunningham, driving the sled that Holcomb won the gold medal with in 2010, is given a chance to sneak in for a medal if he can be consistent over four runs, two more than in regular World Cup competitions.
Lolo Jones, one of the track stars on the women’s team, will get a lot of press attention and could medal pushing driver Jazmine Fenlator.
The track itself will get plenty of comment. In the wake of the luge fatality at Vancouver, officials have slowed down the run by adding uphill sections which makes driving skills and experience even more important over four heats.
In the Nordic ski events, Vermonter Peggy Shinn, who will cover the competitions for the U.S. Olympic news services, notes that the U.S. has a chance to win medals in the biathlon and women’s cross country for the first time.
Tim Burke of Paul Smiths’, outside of Saranac Lake, who won a silver medal in the sprint event last year in the world biathlon championships, and Lowell Bailey of Lake Placid are three-time Olympians. Either could win a medal individually or as part of the relay. Kikkan Randall has been a top competitor on the World Cup cross country ski circuit the past two years in the sprint events, and could win the first medal ever for an American woman.
In Nordic combined, 2010 gold medalist Demong is a popular favorite, although he has lagged the field so far this winter.
This is the first Olympics for women’s ski jumping, and the best hope for the U.S. is Sarah Hendrickson if she is fully recovered from an injury that kept her out of competition early this season.
The staff at the New York Ski Education Foundation, headquartered at Whiteface Mountain, works with competitors year-round. NYSEF’s Andrew Weibrecht came from back in the rankings to win a bronze medal in Vancouver. He has not had strong results in the past couple of years, largely due to nagging injuries, but in the Alpine speed events like super-G, one great run is all you need to go from “Who’s He?” to “Who’s Who.” Remember downhiller Bill Johnson in 1984 at Sarajevo?
With Lindsey Vonn injured, the best U.S. hope in the speed events is 35-year-old Bode Miller, competing in his fourth Olympics. He has been racing well in Europe this winter, and a medal for him would be especially sweet since he missed all of last year due to injury.
Travis Ganong has been the most consistent of the other Americans in a group that includes Weibrecht.
In the technical events, the U.S. should be among the favorites. Ted Ligity and 19-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin have been on the World Cup podium often this winter. Team veteran Julia Mancuso already has an Olympic medal, and is a strong contender in both slalom and giant slalom.
Because of Olympic rules, U.S. chances to win medals improve because, unlike the World Cup, no country can enter more than five skiers in any single discipline.
Snowboard events have been a part of the games for more than a decade, and have made athletes like Shaun White international stars. This year, slopestyle, which owes its popularity to youth oriented competitions like the X-Games and the Dew Tour, has been added to the menu. The U.S. is so strong and deep in these closed-arena events that two-time Olympic champion Seth Wescott was not named to the team.
Of special interest will be whether White, who has dominated the snowboard halfpipe competition, can also win this year in slopestyle.
Slopestyle skier Nick Geopper is the pick of the coaches at the Carinthia training center at Mt. Snow in Vermont, along with local favorite Devin Logan in the women’s ski event. Kelly Clark of Wilmington, Vt., Is a four-time Olympian and former gold medalist in women’s snowboard halfpipe.
Jay Simson of Niskayuna, who is the U.S. representative for freestyle to the International Ski Federation (FIS) said that Kearney has a good chance to become the first repeat champion in any freestyle discipline. Bradley Wilson and former world champion Pat Deneen are top contenders in the men’s moguls. Emily Cook is the most experienced U.S. competitor in the Aerial event.
The main network television coverage of the games will be provided by NBC, which is channel 13 locally. Wall-to-wall coverage will be provided by its cable affiliates with more than 230 hours of broadcast time to be allotted over the 18 days of the games.
If I could watch only one event on television, it would be the biathlon relay. A decade ago, this sport was redone to open up venues for television coverage so this head-to-head team competition can be seen from start to finish. Compounding the drama of a sprint relay is the pressure to shoot straight and avoid extra skiing penalties. It all makes for very exciting television. And the U.S. should be a medal contender in the men’s relay, which is scheduled for Feb. 22.