Ole Einar Bjoerndalen

Amazing race to catch most decorated Winter Olympian ever

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Michael Phelps‘ pursuit of the record for most career Olympic medals — a mark held since 1964 — was a major international storyline at the 2012 Olympics.

Phelps passed retired Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina‘s record of 18 and finished the London Games with 22.

The Winter Olympic record is held by retired Norwegian cross-country skier Bjorn Daehlie, who won 12 medals from 1992 through 1998.

That record could be matched or fall in Sochi. Olympians in three sports are chasing it, led by two more Norwegians.

The most likely is biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, who is one behind Daehlie with 11 medals combined from the 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010 Olympics.

Bjoerndalen, known as the “King,” competed in Lillehammer 1994 but did not win a medal and entered one cross-country skiing race at the 2002 Olympics and finished fifth.

In Sochi, Bjoerndalen will surely be part of the men’s 4×7.5km relay, where Norway is a medal favorite. That would get him even with Daehlie.

It gets interesting after that. A new biathlon mixed relay will include two men and two women from each nation. Again, Norway is a medal favorite.

Norway’s best biathlete is Emil Hegle Svendsen. Its second best, in World Cup overall standings, has seen a shift this year. Tarjei Boe, the overall World Cup champion in 2010-11, has fallen behind Bjoerndalen this season. Bjoerndalen is having his best season in five years.

It would seem Bjoerndalen, 40, is now favored for that second spot in the mixed relay, but could that change if Boe rediscovers his world’s best form in individual events in Sochi? The individual events come before the relays on the Olympic program.

Complicating matters is Boe’s younger brother, Johannes, who was 8 months old when Bjoerndalen made his Olympic debut in 1994. Johannes has two wins this season, his first full year on the World Cup circuit, and is ranked two spots behind Bjoerndalen overall.

Bjoerndalen could save stress by winning an individual medal before the relays, but that will be tougher.

The other Norwegian candidate to catch or pass Daehlie is cross-country skier Marit Bjoergen.

Bjoergen, 33, owns seven medals combined from the 2002, 2006 and 2010 Olympics.

How could she possibly reach 12 or 13? If she repeats her Vancouver 2010 performance of five medals, she will match Daehlie. If she does the unprecedented, win six medals at a single Winter Olympics, she will pass Daehlie. She would have to be perfect as there are six women’s cross-country skiing events on the Winter Olympic program.

And it is definitely possible. Bjoergen is predicted to win medals in all four individual events by The Associated Press and Infostrada. Norway’s women are also predicted to win medals in both team events.

The problem lies with the team sprint. Bjoergen did not enter the two-woman event at the 2010 Olympics or either of two World Cup events this season. She also skipped it at the 2011 and 2013 World Championships.

If Bjoergen does not enter the team sprint, she can’t get to 13 in Sochi and she can’t break the record for most Winter Olympic medals at a single Games. She’s 33 and could definitely be around for 2018, unlike Bjoerndalen.

German speed skater Claudia Pechstein has an outside chance of reaching 12. Pechstein’s case is interesting given she was forced to sit out the 2010 Olympics because of a doping ban. She didn’t actually test positive but had irregular blood levels.

Pechstein, 41, is on nine medals from 1992 through 2006. She is a medal contender in the 3000m and 5000m in Sochi, which would get her to 11. She could also race the 1500m but is ranked seventh in World Cup standings there.

Germany won the 2010 Olympic team pursuit without Pechstein but did not qualify for the event in Sochi.

Sochi Olympic medals tested under extreme conditions

World Figure Skating Championships pairs preview

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Volosozhar and Trankov couldn’t do it. Neither did Shen and Zhao. Nor Gordeeva and Grinkov.

Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford can win a third straight pairs world title next week, a feat not seen since Irina Rodnina and Alexander Zaitsev of the Soviet Union won six in a row from 1973 through 1978.

But they don’t feel like favorites.

“We’re coming in a little more under the radar,” Radford said.

They lost their two most recent international competitions — third at the Grand Prix Final in December; second at the Four Continents Championships in February.

Duhamel and Radford are seeded fifth by best international scores this season going into the world championships in Helsinki (broadcast schedule here).

“Sometimes it feels like worlds last year was so long ago,” Radford said.

Last year in Boston, Duhamel and Radford had the performance of their seven-year partnership in the world championships free skate. They tallied a personal-best 153.81 points, more than seven points clear of their previous best.

It was easily enough to overtake Chinese short-program leaders Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who were relegated to silver behind the Canadians for a second straight year.

This season, Duhamel and Radford haven’t come within 13 points of their 2016 World Championships total. Duhamel went through “an unforeseeable circumstance” in her personal life in November that she chooses not to reveal.

They implemented the throw triple Axel, but Duhamel fell three times in a four-event stretch this fall. They lost by nearly 13 points at December’s Grand Prix Final, which ended with a Duhamel backstage meltdown.

“We never fell like that at home [in practice],” Duhamel said on the IceTalk podcast. “It started to shake us up a little bit.”

They replaced the throw triple Axel in their program. Without it in February, both skaters had trouble with jumps at Four Continents at the 2018 Olympic venue and finished nearly 13 points behind Sui and Han.

“We kind of went back to square one, to the drawing board after Four Continents, reassessing what’s gone on this season, why are we underperforming, why are we not succeeding in competition the way we are training,” Duhamel said.

They made program changes, notably on their throw and jump entrances and overhauling the footwork in their short program.

Duhamel adopted a rescue dog from South Korea. Radford, who had surgery over the summer to remove a cyst from his ankle bone, leaned on a sports psychologist.

“I personally feel a lot more relaxed and seemless,” Radford said. “That feeling has come a little bit later this season.”

Five pairs could take gold in Helsinki in perhaps the most wide-open event.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and (French-born) Bruno Massot won both of their fall Grand Prix events but missed the Grand Prix Final after she tore an ankle ligament. They returned to take silver at the European Championships in January with the best score of their two-year partnership.

Young Russians Yevgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov stepped up to win the Grand Prix Final, the second-biggest annual competition, and then the European Championships. But free-skate struggles have dogged them this season.

Another Russian pair, Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, are perhaps the biggest wild card. They missed the fall season due to Stolbova’s left leg injury, but then beat Tarasova and Morozov in their season debut at the Russian Championships. Stolbova fell on their throw triple flip in both programs at the European Championships in January, and they finished fourth.

Then there are Sui and Han, looking to break through for a first senior world title in their sixth try (though Sui is just 21 years old, and Han 24). They missed the fall season after Sui underwent right ankle and left foot surgeries last spring. They returned at Four Continents and posted personal-best free skate and total scores, ranking only behind Tarasova and Morozov for the season.

U.S. pairs Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Christopher Knierim and Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier have both missed significant time due to injury in the last two years. They are behind the top pairs from Canada, China and Russia.

The U.S. hasn’t put a pair in the world championships top five since 2006, and that doesn’t figure to change next week.

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NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.

Ashley Caldwell will win or lose Olympic aerials gold with triples

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PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — As a teenager, Ashley Caldwell never had problems hanging with the boys when it came to doing the biggest flips off the aerials ramp. Now in her 20s, she sees no reason for that to change.

Caldwell will make or miss her third U.S. Olympic team, then potentially win or lose the gold medal in South Korea, by doing triple flips off the kicker while most of the women are doing doubles. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition that sets the bar high, and sends a certain message, regardless of whether she finishes first or last.

“It’s not just about trying to be there by myself,” Caldwell says. “It’s about maybe inspiring some younger girls to say, `I should be able to push to whatever I’m capable of doing, not necessarily what people say my gender is capable of doing.”‘

Caldwell never shirked from joining the teenage boys when they started moving to the bigger kickers and adding an extra flip to the doubles they did as kids.

Triples are the price of admission for the men, and while not unheard of among the women, the list of athletes who will try them is short: Jacqui Cooper, Alla Tsuper and Xu Mengtao are among the few who have tried them over the years. They’re also among the best to ever fly off a ramp.

At the Sochi Olympics, Lydia Lassila of Australia became the first woman to land a quadruple-twisting triple flip on snow in training. The next night, she brought it to the medals round, and though she touched her hand to the ground on the landing, she won a bronze medal anyway and stole the headlines.

“That’s who I’m inspired by,” Caldwell said that night. “She’s trying to push the sport so that girls are jumping like the boys, and she’s doing it, and it’s really impressive.”

At freestyle world championships earlier this month, Caldwell sent her message when she became the first woman to cleanly land that same triple-flipping, quadruple-twisting jump in competition (video here).

“It was the first time I had every coach come up to me and shake my hand before the score even came up,” said Todd Ossian, who works with Caldwell as head coach of the U.S. aerials team.

And yet, Caldwell was oh-so-close to not being able to even try that winning jump.

Aerials competitions go through a series of qualifying and elimination rounds that include only one jump each. Consistency is rewarded, and most women train a variety of double flips to make it through the rounds, then bring out their most intricate jump – more often than not, also a double – for when the medals are awarded.

Caldwell doesn’t go that route. She tries triples every time she steps onto the hill.

It adds extra – some might say unnecessary – risk to the early rounds. When the field was being cut from 12 to nine at world championships, for instance, Caldwell didn’t land her triple flip. She was able to squeak into the top nine and advance only because her degree of difficulty for the triple was so high.

“I’m OK sacrificing some good competition results to increase my consistency on the triple,” says Caldwell, giving a nod to the reality that training days on snow are precious and she needs to use them to focus on the jumps she’ll be performing when the contests start.

The recently ended season tested the limits of how much Caldwell was willing to sacrifice. In meet after meet, from Moscow to Minsk to an Olympic test event in South Korea, difficulties with the triple kept her far away from the podium. In the World Cup standings, Caldwell finished 10th.

To her, that’s more a badge of honor than a sign of failure. In a sport that oddly transforms daredevils into conformists, and rewards consistency over risk-taking, Caldwell plans to keep pushing anyway.

In doing triples, her mission is as much about winning as bringing others along for the ride.

“I want the crowd to feel like they know who won,” Caldwell said. “I want it to be impressive. I just want people to say, `That’s sweet. That’s what’s deserved.’ If a lot of girls are doing triples up there and I fall, there would still be a lot of girls who would do well. I’m cool with that. If I mess up, that’s OK. But I want the sport to look good.”

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VIDEO: Top U.S. aerials skier crashes hard at World Cup