18 U.S. Olympic hopefuls to watch for PyeongChang 2018

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The U.S. may be better equipped than ever to, for the first time, top the medal standings at a Winter Olympics held outside North America.

Three primary reasons. First, that the Winter Games are being held far away from traditional European powers Germany and Norway. Second, that rival Russia is dealing with a doping scandal that could limit (or eliminate) the participation of some of its stars in PyeongChang. Third, a continued American stronghold on new freestyle events on the Olympic program.

If the U.S. is to win the most medals in PyeongChang, these 18 are among the likeliest athletes to contribute:

Mikaela Shiffrin, Alpine Skiing: Became the youngest Olympic slalom champion in Sochi. Currently leads the standings for the World Cup overall title, which annually crowns the world’s best all-around skier. Should contend for at least two medals in PyeongChang.

Lindsey Vonn, Alpine Skiing: 2010 Olympic downhill champion and winningest female Alpine skier missed the Sochi Winter Games due to knee surgery. Returned to the top of the podium again this season after more knee and arm fractures.

Elana Meyers Taylor, Bobsled: Bronze in 2010 and silver in 2014. Now the world’s best female driver, looking to win the first U.S. Olympic women’s bobsled title since the sport’s debut in 2002.

Jessie Diggins, Cross-Country Skiing: Two World Cup wins this season, looking to become the first U.S. Olympic women’s cross-country skiing medalist and second overall after Bill Koch in 1976.

John Shuster, Curling: Skipped the U.S. to its first men’s or women’s Olympic or world championships medal since 2007 last year. Shuster skipped the U.S. to 2-7 records at both the 2010 and 2014 Olympics.

Nathan Chen, Figure Skating: Won the U.S. title at age 17 last month by becoming the first skater to land seven quadruple jumps in a competition. Beat the reigning Olympic and world champions in the Grand Prix Final free skate in December.

Ashley Wagner, Figure Skating: In 2016, snapped a 10-year U.S. women’s medal drought by taking silver at the world championships. Might be the biggest threat to a possible Russian podium sweep.

Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani, Figure Skating: Siblings are the new top U.S. couple in ice dance with Sochi gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White absent from competition the last three years. Two straight U.S. titles with a 2016 World silver medal in between.

Maddie Bowman, Freestyle Skiing: Sochi ski halfpipe champion has earned medals in all eight of her X Games appearances (Aspen and Europe) dating to 2012 despite knee surgeries in 2014 and 2015.

Gus Kenworthy, Freestyle Skiing: Sochi ski slopestyle silver medalist earned X Games medals in halfpipe and slopestyle in 2016 and could make the PyeongChang team in both disciplines.

Amanda Kessel, Hockey: After silver in Sochi, came back from life-altering post-concussion effects to become the highest-paid player in the new National Women’s Hockey League and rejoin the national team.

Patrick Kane, Hockey: First U.S.-born player to win the Hart Trophy figures to lead the U.S. attack in PyeongChang, should the NHL decide to participate in the Olympics for a sixth straight time.

Erin Hamlin, Luge: In Sochi, became the first U.S. Olympic singles medalist with a bronze. Won medals in all three events at the world championships last month and said she hopes to make her fourth Olympics the last competition of her career.

J.R. Celski, Short Track Speed Skating: Took a year off after winning his third Olympic medal in Sochi. Last weekend, earned his first individual World Cup medal since 2013.

Jamie Anderson, Snowboarding: Sochi slopestyle gold medalist could go for two medals in PyeongChang with the addition of big air to the Olympic program. Pushed by two potential U.S. Olympic rookies — Hailey Langland and Julia Marino.

Chloe Kim, Snowboarding: Too young for Sochi at age 13, has since won two X Games titles and became the first woman to score a perfect, 100-point run and to land back-to-back 1080s. The daughter of South Korean immigrants.

Shaun White, Snowboarding: Changed coaches and dropped an event (slopestyle) since finishing fourth in Sochi. Now focused wholly on halfpipe and no longer playing guitar in a band. Won last the U.S. Grand Prix at Mammoth Mountain, Calif., on Sunday after finishing 11th at the Winter X Games.

Heather Bergsma, Speed Skating: Part of a disappointing, medal-less U.S. speed skating effort in Sochi. Has been on a tear since, breaking world records in the 1000m and 1500m, winning the 500m world title in 2015 and winning all five of her World Cup 1000m starts this season. Married to Dutch Olympic 10,000m champion Jorrit Bergsma.

PYEONGCHANG 2018
Storylines | 18 US Stars | 18 Global Stars | Strange Olympic Hopefuls | Key events
Oldest US Olympian? | Youngest US Olympian? | Venue Photo Gallery | North Korea

Ragan Smith delivers in first U.S. championship title win

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Ragan Smith embraced the role of heavy favorite coming into the U.S. gymnastics championships.

Thrust into the spotlight for the first time in her career, the 17-year-old hardly appeared intimidated by the stage. Smith pulled away from the field to claim her first national title Sunday, posting a score of 115.250, more than three points clear of Jordan Chiles in second place and Riley McCusker in third.

Smith opened up a 1.3-point lead over McCusker in the opening round Friday but admitted afterward she wasn’t particularly impressed by her own performance. She was considerably sharper less than 48 hours later, her 57.850 total in the finals was the best in the 16-woman all-around field by nearly two points.

Smith is one of the few holdovers from the 2016 Olympic cycle, serving as an alternate for the “Final Five” team that won half of the available medals in Rio de Janeiro last fall. Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian and Laurie Hernandez are taking breaks or have moved on, leaving Smith as the standard bearer for new national team coordinator Valeri Liukin.

The program appears to be in solid hands. Smith ditched “The Addams Family” themed floor routine she used last year for something a little more mature. It’s not the only part of her gymnastics that has grown up. Smith finished first on floor and beam and tied for third on bars.

Smith will be in the mix for the all-around title at the world championships in Montreal, where she’ll have a chance to extend the U.S.’s dominance. An American woman has won the world or Olympic title each of the last six years. Barring injury, Smith should be right there.

Liukin said he wasn’t alarmed following an uneven performance by the field in preliminaries, calling it a positive step for a group lacking in experience. The gymnastics were markedly improved in the finals.

Chiles slipped by McCusker into second thanks to a fabulous save on beam in which she turned a near disaster into something decidedly artful.

Chiles was in the middle of “wolf turn” (basically spinning on one foot while in a crouch on a 4-inch wide piece of wood) when she nearly fell over. Instead she rose to her feet, kept rotating, and went right into the next part of her routine as if it was planned all along.

Chiles’ steadiness gives Liukin another option as he tries to put together the rest of the four-woman team that will join Smith in Montreal. McCusker, only recently recovered from foot and wrist injuries, tried to keep the heat on Smith but stepped out of bounds following the last tumbling pass on her floor routine. McCusker finished first on bars — her legs practically magnetized together as she went from bar to bar — to win the event with ease.

Ashton Locklear, like Smith an alternate last summer, wound up second on bars with a watered down routine as he makes her way back from her own injury issues and should have time to install upgrades before Montreal.

Whoever heads to Canada in October will go with the usual expectations for what has become the sport’s most dominant program.

MORE: Simone Biles says being back in the gym is “OK” (video)

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Simone Biles says being back in the gym is “OK” (video)

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Simone Biles has competed in the six previous U.S. National Championships, winning the last four, but in Anaheim this year, she’s watching from the sidelines. Biles won four gold medals (team, all-around, vault and floor) and one bronze (on beam) last summer at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

This week she revealed she has returned to the gym to prepare for a yet to be determined event, in her return to competition.

When asked how she’s been doing in the gym by NBC Sports’ Andrea Joyce, Biles responded with her signature smile accompanied by an endearingly bashful eye roll, “the beginning is…OK.”

MORE: Danell Leyva on why he’s retiring

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