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Six months out: 18 international athletes to watch for PyeongChang

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Eighteen of the most dominant and decorated international athletes with eyes on the PyeongChang Olympics in six months.

Marcel Hirscher, Austria, Alpine Skiing
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 took a backseat to Americans Elana Meyers Taylor and Jamie Greubel Poser last season, ceding world championships and World Cup titles. 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 six this year.

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 returned to capture a rewarding bronze medal. McMorris must come back from a life-threatening crash this time around. He suffered a broken jaw and left arm, ruptured spleen, stable pelvic fracture, rib fractures and a collapsed left lung in a backcountry snowboarding crash in March. In 2016, McMorris broke his right femur in a big air crash.

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 22 years old, poised to become the first athlete to qualify for an Olympics in both Alpine skiing and snowboarding. She won the World Cup Alpine snowboarding season title 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.

Martin Fourcade, France, Biathlon
The three-time Sochi medalist won 13 of the 19 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). Won three of four World Cups last season (after going 11 years between wins), plus the Winter X Games for the first time.

Laura Dahlmeier, Germany, Biathlon
Germany would easily top the PyeongChang Olympic medal standings if results from this past season’s world championships repeat. No single athlete is more responsible than Dahlmeier, who won five of the six events at the world championships in February.

Elise Christie, Great Britain, Short Track Speed Skating
The first European woman to win the world overall title, thanks to individual golds in the 1000m and 1500m. Last season marked the peak of a decade-long ascent for the two-time Olympian who was a figure skater until age 15. Christie was disqualified from all three of her Sochi Olympic events and was cyberbullied to the point of temporarily deactivating her Twitter account.

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. Hanyu swept the two biggest events last season — the Grand Prix Final and world championships — but he was beaten by 17-year-old Nathan Chen at the Olympic test event in South Korea.

Sara Takanashi, Japan, Ski Jumping
Takanashi may be the most towering 100-pound athlete on the planet. She has won 27 of her 38 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 four 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 five years and, last 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 was the third-ranked Norwegian biathlete last 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 two seasons ago. Re-emerged last 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 said he intends to play in PyeongChang despite the NHL deciding not to send players for the first time since Nagano 1998. 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 could win Spain’s third-ever Winter Olympic medal and first since 1992.

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Salt Lake City forms committee to weigh Olympic bid

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Salt Lake City has formed an exploratory committee to decide if the city will bid to host the Winter Olympics in either 2026 or 2030 — taking a key step toward trying to become a rare two-time host city.

The group made up of elected officials, business leaders and one key member of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City said Monday that it plans to make a recommendation to state leaders by Feb. 1.

The announcement comes after the U.S. Olympic Committee board said Friday that it was moving forward with discussions about bringing the Winter Games to America for either 2026 or 2030.

Because Los Angeles was recently awarded the 2028 Summer Games, a bid for 2030 would make more sense, chairman Larry Probst said Friday.

The USOC has until next March to pick a city; those expressing interest include Salt Lake City, Denver and Reno, Nevada.

Innsbruck, Austria, said Sunday it wouldn’t bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics, taking one more city out of the running. The hosting rights are set to be awarded in July 2019.

The same country hasn’t hosted back-to-back Olympics since before World War II, though when the International Olympic Committee scrapped its traditional rules and awarded 2024 (Paris) and 2028 (LA) at the same time, it indicated it was certainly open to new ideas.

Since 2012, Salt Lake City has been letting Olympic officials know the city was ready and willing to host again with a plan based on renovating and upgrading venues that have been in use since the Games ended.

The city had previously estimated it could put on a Winter Olympics for about $2 billion, but the committee will come up with a new cost estimate, said Jeff Robbins, the president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission.

Robbins is one of three co-chairs on the committee along with Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser and Fraser Bullock, a key player in Salt Lake City’s 2002 Olympics.

Robbins said he thinks the city has a great shot at winning a bid based on the relatively low cost and because it has demonstrated it knows how to maintain venues and keep them in use, putting the city in line with Agenda 2020, the blueprint that IOC President Thomas Bach created for future Olympics calling for less spending on new venues and infrastructure.

There’s an eight-lane interstate running from the Salt Lake airport, which was upgraded for the Olympics, to Park City, which is the home of U.S. Ski and Snowboard. Park City is the host for key U.S. training centers for freestyle skiing, speedskating and cross country skiing.

Overall, the area has hosted about 75 World Cup and world-championship events in winter sports since the Olympic cauldron was extinguished more than 15 years ago.

He said an expanded light rail train line grid around Salt Lake City and a $3 billion airport renovation already underway are two examples of how Salt Lake City is even better prepared now to host than in 2002.

But he and other organizers will also have to answer questions about a bidding scandal that marred the 2002 Games and resulted in several International Olympic Committee members losing their positions for taking bribes.

“You can’t control the past,” Robbins said. “The results of what happened I think would certainly speak volumes. While there was some challenges, we hosted arguably one of the best Olympics ever hosted.”

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Simone Biles announces new coach

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When Simone Biles begins her comeback in earnest next month, she’ll be training under a new coach — Laurent Landi — who coached one of her Olympic teammates, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Landi, a 39-year-old former French gymnast, guided Rio uneven bars silver medalist Madison Kocian at the Dallas-area gym WOGA, along with wife Cecile.

“[Landi] was in Dallas, which is not far away, and had recently left WOGA, and I had worked with alongside him and know how he is with athletes,” Biles said, according to the newspaper. “He does a good job not letting pressure get to the athletes. You can see some coaches get stressed but he doesn’t.”

Biles’ previous coach since she was 7, Aimee Boorman, left their Houston-area gym for a gymnastics job in Florida after the Rio Games.

Biles said last week she plans to return to full-time training Nov. 1 and return to competition next summer.

Kocian is now at UCLA and uncertain to return to elite gymnastics.

Two other Final Five members — Aly Raisman and Laurie Hernandez — have said they plan to return to training for a Tokyo 2020 run. But neither has announced a return to the gym like Biles.

The last member — 2012 Olympic all-around champion Gabby Douglas — has not said whether she will come back.

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