18 international stars to watch for PyeongChang 2018

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Eighteen of the most dominant and decorated international athletes with eyes on the PyeongChang Olympics in one year:

Marcel Hirscher, Austria, Alpine Skiing
En route this season to become the first man to win six World Cup overall titles, and he’s done it consecutively. Hirscher has won World Cup or world championships races in every discipline but downhill, but he’s set to end his career with a different distinction if he doesn’t deliver in PyeongChang — best skier never to win Olympic gold. Hirscher, a Sochi silver medalist, reportedly said he doesn’t plan to race to 2022.

Kaillie Humphries, Canada, Bobsled
Greatest female driver in history and two-time reigning Olympic champion. Humphries has taken a backseat to American rival and training partner Elana Meyers Taylor this winter, but remains in position to take a fourth World Cup season title in the last five years. Humphries’ collection of tattoos includes the date (2.24.10) of her first Olympic title on the side of her hand with the word “Believe.”

Mikael Kingsbury, Canada, Freestyle Skiing
The Québécois was the pre-Sochi favorite but took silver behind countryman Alexandre Bilodeau, who repeated as Olympic champion and then retired. Kingsbury, known to wear a lucky undershirt that states, “It’s Good to be the King,” took the defeat in stride, winning seven straight World Cup events in 2015 and 2016 and running his streak of World Cup season titles to five.

Mark McMorris, Canada, Snowboarding
The rare snowboarder from Saskatchewan earned the nickname “McRib” after breaking a rib in the 2014 Winter X Games, 12 days before Sochi, and losing his favorite status for slopestyle’s Olympic debut. He came back to snag bronze. This time around, McMorris is returning from breaking his right femur in an Air and Style big air crash last Feb. 21. He earned medals in slope and big air at X Games last month.

Marie-Philip Poulin, Canada, Hockey
The daughter of Quebec hospital workers was dubbed “the female Sidney Crosby” even before scoring both goals in the 2010 Olympic final against the U.S. Then she scored the golden goal in overtime of the 2014 Olympic final. In 2015, she was named captain of the national team at age 25.

Ester Ledecka, Czech Republic, Snowboarding/Skiing
Just 21 years old, poised to become the first athlete to qualify for an Olympics in both Alpine skiing and snowboarding. She leads the World Cup standings in Alpine snowboarding while also competing in Alpine skiing World Cup races with a best finish of 13th. Her grandfather won Olympic hockey silver and bronze for Czechoslovakia.

Martina Sablikova, Czech Republic, Speed Skating
The five-time Olympic medalist, with a spider-like, 5-foot-7, 117-pound frame, recently lost an international race of 3000m or longer for the first time since the start of 2015. Since Sochi, she won two more world allround titles and finished 12th in the 2015 World Road Cycling Championships time trial but was unable to race at the Rio Games due to a technicality.

Martin Fourcade, France, Biathlon
The three-time Sochi medalist is arguably the world’s most dominant winter sports athlete. Has won 10 of the 15 individual World Cup events this season. Came within 2.8 seconds of sweeping all four individual events at the 2016 World Championships. Fourcade is also vocal, threatening to boycott events if the Russian doping problem isn’t adequately addressed.

Marie Martinod, France, Freestyle Skiing
Took silver in Sochi after coming out of a five-year retirement (including childbirth). Has won both World Cups this season (going 11 years between wins), plus the Winter X Games for the first time.

Yuzuru Hanyu, Japan, Figure Skating
The standard of excellence in the sport, when he’s on. In 2015, Hanyu shattered the record for total points in a competition by 27.13. Two weeks later, he scored another 8.03 points higher to win the prestigious Grand Prix Final by 37.48 points. Inconsistency cost him at the last two world championships, where Spanish training partner Javier Fernandez overtook Hanyu’s short-program lead for gold.

Sara Takanashi, Japan, Ski Jumping
Takanashi may be the most towering 100-pound athlete on the planet. She has won 26 of her 35 World Cup starts in the last two years. The only drawback is her record at the Olympics and World Championships — a shocking fourth in Sochi and no golds in three individual worlds starts.

Sven Kramer, Netherlands, Speed Skating
Kramer may be best known to Americans for stepping into the wrong lane during the 2010 Olympic 10,000m (at the direction of his coach) and being disqualified despite skating four seconds faster than the Olympic record. But to the Dutch he is simply a winner, perhaps the greatest skater of all time. He hasn’t lost a major international 5000m in four years and, this season, showed his versatility by winning his first World Cup 1500m in eight years.  

Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, Norway, Biathlon
The Biathlon King broke the record for career Winter Olympic medals in Sochi by reaching 13. He could break a tie for gold medals (eight) with retired Norwegian cross-country skier Bjorn Daehlie in PyeongChang, if he qualifies for a seventh Olympics at age 44. That appears likely, given he earned medals in three of four individual races at the 2016 Worlds and is the second-ranked Norwegian biathlete this season.

Kamil Stoch, Poland, Ski Jumping
Swept both individual golds in Sochi while wearing a military-green helmet in honor of the Polish Air Force. Plummeted to 22nd in the World Cup standings a season ago. Re-emerged this season by winning the prestigious Four Hills Tournament for the first time and winning four straight World Cups in January.

Yevgenia Medvedeva, Russia, Figure Skating
Medvedeva, who started competing on the senior international level in 2015, hasn’t lost since November 2015 and is the biggest gold-medal favorite in figure skating. She could go into PyeongChang riding a streak of dominance not seen since Katarina Witt.

Alexander Ovechkin, Russia, Hockey
Ovechkin’s commitment to his national team may be unrivaled in men’s hockey. The three-time Hart Trophy winner has already said he intends to play in PyeongChang regardless of if the NHL officially participates in the Winter Games. He took the same stance this time four years ago, while the NHL was deciding whether it would participate in Sochi. Still, Ovechkin has yet to win a medal in three Olympic appearances.

Javier Fernandez, Spain, Figure Skating
Fernandez has been so great that he’s kicked soccer off the front page of Spanish sports daily Marca with his conquests, including the last two world championships. He comes from a nation with maybe 20 ice rinks and was bullied growing up for being a figure skater. Now, Fernandez is tight with Real Madrid and receives letters from the Spanish royal family after victories. He should win Spain’s third-ever Winter Olympic medal and first since 1992.

Lara Gut, Switzerland, Alpine Skiing
Reigning World Cup overall champion as the best all-around female Alpine racer. At 17 years old, Gut took silver in the 2009 World Championships downhill behind Lindsey Vonn. Gut then missed the 2010 Olympics with a dislocated hip and didn’t fully realize her potential until the last few years, after co-starring in a 2012 Italian film. Gut is Vonn’s toughest foe in speed races and has over the years stoked the rivalry with quotes.

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Julia Mancuso pushes past hip injury for final Olympic run

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When Julia Mancuso was 18 years old, a doctor told the ski racer that she needed to make a choice.

Continue competing (Mancuso had already been to an Olympics at age 17) or live a healthy life.

Mancuso was born with hip displaysia, a misalignment of hip bones that causes the joint to deteriorate faster than normal. The doctor told Mancuso she needed reconstructive surgery.

“I left crying and never went back to that doctor,” she said.

Mancuso went to the slopes instead.

In 15 years since that doctor’s visit, she put together one of the greatest Alpine careers in U.S. history — four Olympic medals (most by a U.S. female skier), five world championships medals and 36 World Cup podiums.

The right hip problems persisted. Mancuso did undergo hip surgery after her breakthrough Olympic giant slalom title in 2006.

The pain returned and, by 2015, became unbearable.

She underwent another hip surgery, this one much more complicated. The operation fixed cartilage damage, cleaned up bone spurs and put more anchors in her labrum because of a slight tear with doctors warning that her hip would probably be 90 percent of what it was, according to The Associated Press.

Mancuso spent six months on crutches. When she returns to the World Cup circuit this fall, Mancuso will have gone more than two and a half years between races.

“It’s really hard for me to walk normally,” Mancuso said last month. “A lot of people ask me why I’m doing it [skiing], because I can’t even walk. Why would I ski? The truth is, skiing is way easier. Skiing is fun because it is easy, and my body loves it. My body loves to ski, and my body needs to ski. … It improves my quality of life.”

Because of her hip, Mancuso said PyeongChang will be her fifth and final Olympics, should she make it there. She might not compete beyond next season.

The U.S. women’s speed team is deep — Lindsey Vonn, World Cup podium finishers Laurenne Ross, Jackie Wiles and Stacey Cook, the young Breezy Johnson. Even Mikaela Shiffrin dabbles. A maximum of four women per nation can start an Olympic race.

The super combined, where Mancuso earned silver and bronze medals at the last two Olympics, appears to be her best shot.

Mancuso is nothing if not dedicated, evidenced by Instagram Stories workout diaries. This complements her laid-back lifestyle, spending half her time in Fiji with her husband of five months and much of the other half in Maui.

She already has post-PyeongChang plans, to honeymoon in Tonga and dive with whales.

Before that, Mancuso hopes to have one more surprise Olympic season.

In 2006, she made her first World Cup podium two weeks before the Torino Winter Games, then won the giant slalom in Torino.

In 2010, she took silver in the Vancouver downhill and super combined despite making zero World Cup podiums in the previous two years.

In 2014, Mancuso snagged combined bronze thanks to the fastest downhill run in Sochi. That came during a season where her best World Cup finish was seventh.

Just making the Olympic team would mean history. No U.S. woman has competed in five Winter Games. Mancuso, halfpipe snowboarder Kelly Clark and cross-country skier Kikkan Randall can become the first.

Mancuso could also become the oldest female Olympic Alpine medalist.

“I’m excited to put my biggest and last effort into these next Olympics,” Mancuso said, “and then see what happens.”

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Grand Prix figure skating assignments announced; Olympic champions absent

Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner
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Nathan ChenAshley WagnerKaren Chen and Maia and Alex Shibutani headline Skate America in November, highlighting this fall’s Grand Prix assignments announced Friday.

Gracie Gold is at Cup of China and Internationaux de France, also in November.

U.S. champion Nathan Chen and Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu will both debut at Rostelecom Cup, the first of six Grand Prix events, in late October.

That will mark an early season test for Chen, an 18-year-old who beat Hanyu at the Four Continents Championships at the PyeongChang Olympic venue last February but fell to sixth at worlds won by Hanyu in April.

Chen’s top challengers at Skate America in Lake Placid, N.Y., are world bronze medalist Jin Boyang of China and training partner and 2016 U.S. champion Adam Rippon.

Grand Prix Assignments: Men | Women | PairsIce Dance

Wagner, a three-time U.S. champion coming off her least successful season in six years, and the surprise U.S. champion Karen Chen are both entered in Skate Canada in October and Skate America.

Russian Yevgenia Medvedeva, the two-time reigning world champion, is entered in Rostelecom Cup and NHK Trophy in Japan. She’ll face Olympic bronze medalist Carolina Kostner of Italy in both events, as well as Mariah Bell and Mirai Nagasu, who finished three-four at the U.S. Championships in January.

The two-time U.S. champion Gold, who changed coaches after a disastrous season, will get an up-close look at Russian world junior champion Alina Zagitova at her two events in China and France.

Polina Edmunds, the youngest U.S. competitor across all sports at the Sochi Olympics at age 15, is entered in France as well. Edmunds hasn’t competed since the January 2016 U.S. Championships due to a bone bruise in her right foot.

Sochi Olympic champion Adelina Sotnikova is not entered in any Grand Prix events.

She has not competed since placing sixth at the December 2015 Russian Championships but recently hired four-time Olympic medalist Yevgeny Plushenko as a new coach.

Also absent from the Grand Prix lists are Olympic pairs champions Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov after Volosozhar gave birth to their daughter Feb. 16.

The Russian pair hasn’t competed since finishing sixth at the 2016 World Championships, their first time outside the top two in 19 top-level international competitions together.

Sotnikova and Volosozhar and Trankov could still be added to Rostelecom Cup as there are open spots for Russians in each discipline at that event.

Skate America, the biggest annual international event in the U.S., is one month later in this season’s calendar, taking place Thanksgiving weekend.

Here’s the full Grand Prix schedule:

Rostelecom Cup (Moscow) — Oct. 20-22
Skate Canada (Regina) — Oct. 27-29
Cup of China (Beijing) — Nov. 3-5
NHK Trophy (Osaka) — Nov. 10-12
Internationaux de France (Grenoble) — Nov. 17-19
Skate America (Lake Placid) — Nov. 24-26
Grand Prix Final (Nagoya, Japan) — Dec. 7-10

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