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

U.S. figure skating could have its best world team since 2006

Nathan Chen performs during the men's free skate competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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KANSAS CITY — U.S. figure skating has a shot at medals in three of four disciplines at the world championships in Helsinki in two months, which hasn’t happened in 11 years.

Before this year, the U.S. men and U.S. women hadn’t boasted simultaneous medal contenders in a decade. Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek spent the 2010 Olympic cycle in the world elite, while the U.S. women faded. After they stopped competing, Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold moved into the women’s medal field while the U.S. searched for a new leading man.

He’s arrived. Nathan Chen confirmed he is one of the world’s best male skaters by landing a record seven quadruple jumps between two programs at Sprint Center this past week.

The 17-year-old already made the podium in an event that featured the world’s best, earning silver at the Grand Prix Final in December. Chen struggled with his short-program jumps at the Grand Prix Final and attempted one fewer quad overall yet still outscored everybody but Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

Of all of the U.S. medal hopes at worlds, Chen may face the stiffest trio of challengers. Not only is there Hanyu, but also two-time reigning world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain, plus Japan’s Shoma Uno, all of whom rank higher than Chen in best total scores in international competition this season.

MORE: Chen believes Olympic gold is possible after U.S. title

Wagner, who shares a coach with Chen, did not have her best nationals. She finished second to surprise winner Karen Chen (no relation to Nathan), who has yet to factor internationally.

But Wagner said before and after the U.S. Championships that her focus was to peak for the world championships. The goal for nationals was to make the world team, which required not winning but finishing in the top three. Mission accomplished.

The concern with Wagner is that she hasn’t produced a world medal-caliber result yet this season. Her best score from the fall ranks her sixth among women going to worlds. But Wagner has shown in the last few seasons that she can pull it together for major events. There’s her 2016 World Championships silver medal, plus her three straight Grand Prix Final medals from 2012-14.

At worlds, Wagner will have to deal with a Russian trio capable of sweeping the podium, three strong Japanese skaters, plus the revelation of this season, Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond.

VIDEO: Wagner passed Puffs in emotional press conference moment

The U.S.’ strongest discipline continues to be ice dance. Maia and Alex Shibutani and Madison Chock and Evan Bates finished second and third at the 2016 World Championships. They went one-two at the U.S. Championships this past week.

But two ice dance medals don’t appear to be in the cards in Helsinki. That’s because Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who earned gold and silver at the last two Olympics, came back this season after a two-year break.

Virtue and Moir broke international scoring records in the fall, sweeping their four starts. The two-time reigning world champions, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, also beat the U.S. couples at the Grand Prix Final.

The Shibutani siblings and Chock and Bates have never finished ahead of Virtue and Moir in competition. Neither has bettered the French since the December 2014 Grand Prix Final, either.

But all it takes is one dance medal, plus Chen and Wagner at their best in Helsinki, and the U.S. could go into the Olympic year in its best place since 2006.

MORE: Gracie Gold comments on split from coach Frank Carroll

Laurie Hernandez discusses life after Rio, new book on TODAY (video)

Laurie Hernandez
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Laurie Hernandez‘s book, “I Got This: To Gold and Beyond,” is out Tuesday, and the Olympic champion gymnast stopped by TODAY on Monday to discuss its contents and life post-Rio.

An excerpt on Hernandez’s experience in Rio and the story of her floor-exercise wink to judges, is here.

On TODAY, Hernandez discussed another interesting anecdote from the book about tissues.

“Before Olympic Trials, we went out to eat, and I had a little breakdown because practice was really rough, and my routines weren’t coming the way I wanted them to,” she said. “This poor waitress kept bringing me over piles of tissues. … We were leaving, and my sister [Jelysa] told my dad, I’m going to save these tissues. I’m going to give them to her when she makes the team. I’m thinking to myself, you guys are crazy, this is not going to happen.”

Hernandez went on to finish second to Simone Biles at the Olympic Trials and make the five-woman Olympic team as the first U.S. female Olympian born in the 2000s.

The family celebrated the achievement, where Jelysa handed the tissues to Hernandez in a bag.

“Even when you fell, you couldn’t believe in yourself, we were there for you,” Jelysa told her.

“So it was a really defining moment,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez is away from gymnastics while promoting her book and touring with “Dancing with the Stars,” but she is expected to return to the sport at some point.

MORE: Hernandez explains 2017 goals: First date, driver’s license, Law & Order