The World Cup speed skating season, which begins Friday, is the determinant for the number of Olympic spots each country receives and a barometer for Olympic medal contenders.
Countries will earn Sochi Olympic quota spots at the first four World Cup stops before the Olympics — Calgary, Alberta; Salt Lake City, Utah; Astana, Kazakhstan and Berlin.
For the U.S., those quota spots will then be filled at the Olympic Trials in Salt Lake City.
Here are all of the key events before the Olympics:
Calgary World Cup — Nov. 8-10
Salt Lake City World Cup — Nov. 15-17
Astana World Cup — Nov. 29-Dec. 1
Berlin World Cup — Dec. 6-8
Salt Lake City U.S. Olympic Trials — Dec. 27-Jan. 1
Nagano World Sprint Championships — Jan. 18-19
Here are five storylines to watch over the next three months:
1. What will the U.S. Olympic Team look like?
A strong early indicator comes from the U.S. Championships two weeks ago and the resulting World Cup team announcement. However, not every World Cup team member in 2009 made the 2010 U.S. Olympic Team.
Here’s the U.S. World Cup team:
Shani Davis (1000m, 1500m)
Brian Hansen (500m, 1000m, 1500m)
Tucker Fredricks (500m)
Joey Mantia (500m, 1000m, 1500m, 5000m, 10,000m)
Jonathan Garcia (500m)
Mitch Whitmore (500m, 1000m)
Trevor Marsicano (1000m, 1500m)
Jonathan Kuck (1500m, 5000m, 10,000m)
Emery Lehman (5000m, 10,000m)
Patrick Meek (5000m, 10,000m)
Brittany Bowe (500m, 1000m, 1500m)
Heather Richardson (500m, 1000m, 1500m)
Lauren Cholewinski (500m)
Sugar Todd (500m, 1000m)
Elli Ochowicz (500m)
Jilleanne Rookard (1000m, 1500m, 300m, 5000m)
Rebekah Bradford (1000m)
Kelly Gunther (1500m)
Theresa Cliff-Ryan (3000m)
Petra Acker (3000m, 5000m)
Anna Ringsred (3000m, 5000m)
Maria Lamb (3000m, 5000m)
The U.S. can earn a maximum of 20 Olympic quota spots (10 men, 10 women) based on World Cup results and times.
2. Healthy Shani Davis seeks Olympic threepeat
Davis, 31, is the only active U.S. skater with an individual Olympic medal. He has four of them, golds in the 1000m at the 2006 and the 2010 Olympics and silver in the 1500m at both Games. He could become the first U.S. man to win three straight Winter Olympic titles in the same event in Sochi.
The veteran Chicagoan pared down his schedule since 2010. He made the 2009-10 World Cup team in every distance and skated all but the 10,000m on the World Cup tour and at the Vancouver Olympics.
He hasn’t skated a 500m, 5000m or 10,000m internationally since January 2012. Davis swept the 1000m and the 1500m at the U.S. Championships two weeks ago.
“My mindset was just to simply qualify and get through Trials the best that I can and get as close as possible to some times I wrote down earlier that I would like to be a little ahead of, a little close to, a little behind, depending on how I skated,” Davis said then. “I’m skating well, but there’s a lot of room for improvement. But the season is still young and the key, the main goal, is to be ready for the Olympics.”
Davis dealt with a small tear in a groin muscle at this time last year that kept him out for most of November. He still went on to take second place in the World Cup season standings in the 1000m, despite missing two of nine races.
He also won silver in the 1500m and bronze in the 1000m at the World Single Distance Championships in March, held at the Sochi Olympic arena.
Keep an eye on his World Cup results and if Davis re-adds the 500m and 5000m for the Olympic Trials.
3. U.S. women try to rejoin world’s elite
The drought will be the story at the Olympics. No U.S. woman has won an Olympic speed skating medal since 2002. But it would be a shock if multiple Americans don’t make the podium during the first few World Cups.
2010 Olympian Heather Richardson is the reigning World Sprint champion, and she may no longer be the top U.S. woman.
Brittany Bowe, a college basketball player when Richardson skated at the 2010 Olympics, won bronze in the 1000m at the World Single Distance Championships.
The U.S. Championships two weeks ago appeared to be the passing of the torch. Bowe beat Richardson in the 500m, 1000m and the 1500m, posting two personal bests.
“It’s a very rewarding feeling to say the least,” Bowe said. “It’s just one competition, and I have a feeling that we’ll go back and forth this year and hopefully we’ll both be in contention for a medal when Sochi rolls around.”
Keep an eye on how Bowe and Richardson stack up against international stars Lee Sang-hwa (500m), Christine Nesbitt (1000m) and Ireen Wust (1500m) at the early World Cups.
4. Sven Kramer’s countryman competition
For every Vonncouver Olympics mention in 2010, there was just as much Svencouver talk. The zealous Dutch speed skating fans hoped he would win three gold medals. He won the 5000m, was infamously disqualified from the 10,000m and was upset by the U.S. in the team pursuit semifinals.
Kramer, 27, sat out one season and went back to dominating his sport. He became the first man to win six World Allround Championships and added single distance titles in the 5000m in 2012 and 2013.
He is not invincible, however. Not even in his own country. Jorrit Bergsma beat Kramer by two seconds in the grueling 10,000m at the World Single Distance Championships in March.
Kramer did not enter either 10,000m race in last year’s World Cup. He also came back to beat Bergsma by more than five seconds at the Dutch Championships two weeks ago. So, don’t doubt him.
Bergsma’s win was more of a testament to fresh depth on the Dutch men’s squad. The other two individual men’s medalists in Vancouver, Mark Tuitert and Bob de Jong, are now 33 and 36 years old.
Bergsma, Jan Smeekens, Kjeld Nuis and Michel and Ronald Mulder, all in their 20s, could win medals in Sochi.
5. A mixture of elite women to watch
Start with Ireen Wust, who won five medals in six events, including three gold medals, at the World Single Distance Championships at the Sochi Olympic arena. The Dutchwoman has also won the last three World Allround Championships.
She missed several World Cup races last season but dominated when she did race, winning five of nine and finishing second in two others.
There’s also Christine Nesbitt, the only Canadian women’s speed skating medalist from 2010 still competing. She’s the reigning Olympic champion in the 1000m, which will be the meet-up distance between the American women and Wust, too.
Nesbitt was diagnosed with Celiac disease earlier this year and switched to a gluten-free diet.
In the longer distances, Wust will contend with the woman who came out of the Vancouver Games as the best all-around skater — Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic. Sablikova hasn’t lost a World Cup or World Championship 5000m since February 2011.