Saturday, January 25, 2014

OLYMPICS CHEATSHEET 2014 - Embracing Your Xgames Side

The following is a preview of the 2014 Sochi Olympics that I put together with Beth Pond, author of PODIUM FINISH, a young adult novel detailing the Olympic journey of two friends: one a figure skater, the other a hockey player. I have read it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially refreshing to see dual points of view structure used for friends instead of resigning it to love interests. Ms. Pond specializes in girl-power sporty books (I've read 2.5 by her now), and she has some great insights into how we build identity through our successes and those times we fall short. I have a feeling we'll be hearing a lot from her in the future.

And now, a sport-by-sport breakdown of your 2014 Winter Olympics!

The one where they ski and then they shoot! Here's a story of one athlete giving up her spot on the Olympic team so that her twin sister could go instead. New medal opportunity this year: The Mixed Relay, where men and women will compete together as a four person team.

One story I'll definitely be watching is Lolo Jones and Lauryn Williams, track stars turned bob sledders. Lolo and Lauryn are set to become only the ninth and tenth Americans to compete in both the summer and winter games. Lolo might have the more memorable name, but Lauryn’s the more decorated; she already has a silver medal from Athens and a gold medal from London.


The Ringers: USA Figure Skating’s best (and arguably only) chance at making the podium in Sochi lies with ice dancing duo Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the reigning world champions, who took home a silver in Vancouver. The gold went to Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Sochi will likely prove to be an enticing rematch. Davis and White are consistent and incredibly patient. Their “Scheherazade” program has been in their back pocket for the past two years, just waiting for this Olympics. If they win, they'll be the first Americans ever to win Olympic gold in ice dancing.

The Ladies: Gracie Gold won, you guessed it, gold at the Olympic trials. It was her first US title. Newcomer Polina Edmunds, who has never competed internationally at the senior level, came in second. Ashley Wagner, who has done well in past seasons, had a disappointing performance—two falls—and finished fifth. However, she was chosen for the third Olympic spot because of her experience.

It seems controversial, naming Wagner (though she does fit the profile of ice darling, especially now that she has a potential comeback story). But giving her the spot meant that the actual third place finisher, Mirai Nagasu, gets left at home (that video is of her exhibition performance right after she learned Wagner was chosen for the Olympic team instead of her; Grantland explored some of the reasons behind the decision here). But what’s USA Ladies figure skating without a little homemade drama?

The New Team: The Figure Skating Team competition is brand new this year. Each country competing will submit one entry for each discipline – women’s, men’s, pair’s, and ice dancing – so a total of six people on each team. I’m IRRATIONALLY excited about this, and it starts right away on Feb. 6th! Obviously, we’ll have Davis and White, and probably from the women’s side we’ll send Gracie Gold? But then what?

The Men: We have two men’s competitors to choose from. The favorite is probably Jeremy Abbott, a guy who is on the brink of retiring from competition but strikes me as a bit flaky (he was almost disqualified from the Olympic qualifying event because he was skating around the ice instead of taking his starting position – he only got it together because the audience started screaming out the count down like a student section at a basketball game!).

Our other option is a nineteen-year-old, Jason Brown, who apparently has less technical ability than Abbott, but the audiences ADORE him. He did a Riverdance thing that earned him a standing ovation before the program was even over.

The Pairs: Some interesting characters here. There’s Castelli and Shnapir, who owned Boston (their hometown) during the qualifiers. I enjoyed them for several reasons, not the least of which is that he is SIXTEEN (16) inches taller than her, and one of their routines is James Bond inspired! And then there’s Zhang and Bartholomay, who did a nifty “Les Mis” routine, with Zhang pumping her fists ("If she could have high-fived someone right there, she would have!") on the last lift, knowing that they’d just thrown down the performance of a lifetime. Both won me over, lots of personality.

The Dancers: The TV broadcasters for the US Championships said that we are LOADED at Ice Dancer this year. In addition to Davis and White, Team USA is sending two other promising ice dancing pairs: Chock and Bates (Les Mis is hot in skating this year, and the dancers get to use music with lyrics), and the Shibutani siblings (Michael Jackson!).

Team USA definitely has some talent. The US and Russia have always had strong skaters, but we’ve seen much more competition from Japan and Korea in the past two Olympics. It's certainly a likable bunch that will give us a lot to talk about.

I'm pretty stupid about hockey, except that I know there are ten (10) Chicago Blackhawks competing for five (5) different countries. I'll let Pond handle this one on her own (I like to call her "Pond" because it's very Whovian):

Let's talk hockey! After earning the silver in 2010, USA Women’s Hockey is poised to take on Team Canada in the gold medal round yet again. Team Canada has won gold at the past three Olympics, but Team USA’s 21 player roster, which includes 11 Olympic veterans, has a strong chance at disrupting this winning streak. If they do, this will be the first time Team USA has claimed the top spot on the podium since the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the first time women’s hockey was part of the Olympic program. Standout players on Team USA’s roster include: Julie Chu, Jessie Vetter, Megan Duggan, and Gigi Marvin.

Consider hockey veteran Julie Chu (in her 4th Olympics) a potential candidate to carry the American flag into the opening ceremonies.

Sliding really fast down hill! Luge = feet first, Skeleton = face first.

Luge is another sport pioneering a new team concept this Olympics. With several of these new Olympic events, there seems to be an emphasis on adding a team dymanic to sports that have historically been highly individualized - and on getting men and women competing together in these events, as well. This setup gives athletes an opportunity to work together as a team, and it also means more chances for more medals. Curious to see how these new events will be received, but love that they're giving it a try.

Take it Pond!

The Ladies: With Lindsey Vonn sitting out these Games to recover from knee surgery, Team USA will be looking to Olympic veteran Julia Mancuso and 18-year-old up-and-comer Mikaela Shiffrin to makes their mark on the slopes for the good ol' red, white, and blue. It’s definitely disappointing that Vonn won’t be competing, but hopefully she’ll have a speedy recovery.

Some other women to keep an eye on: six-time National Champion aerialist Emily Cook had a strong 2013 season and is definitely one to root for in Sochi, her third Olympic games. Also, New Hampshire native and reigning Olympic gold medalist Hannah Kearney will hopefully clinch a second gold in Sochi. Since the Vancouver Olympics, Kearney has won 32 World Cup moguls races.

The Men: The infamous Bode Miller is back and supposedly leaner than ever. Also expect to see some great runs from Ted Ligety, the 2006 Olympic combined champion, who is a favorite to medal in the slalom this year.

The Ladies: Once again, I'm out of my depths (and speed skating is her favorite), so I turn the floor over completely to Pond:

One person I’d watch is 30-year-old Michigan Native, Jessica Smith. After finishing in 6th at the 2010 Olympic Trials, one spot away from qualifying for the Olympic team, she dominated the 2014 Olympic trials, claiming first place finishes and Olympic berths in all three short track distances. She was “fire on ice” at the Olympic Trials, and I really hope she finds success in Sochi.

Right behind her is teammate Emily Scott, who gained national attention in 2013 after a USA Today story reported that the athlete had filed for food stamps. Thanks to crowdfunding, Scott raised over $48,000 to date and was able to quit her part-time job in order to focus solely on preparing for the Olympics. I think Scott, Smith, and the third member of Team USA women’s short track 2010 Olympian Aly Dudek, are all on track to shine at these games. US Speedskating was recently rocked by a coaching scandal that left the athletes very divided, but I don’t think these three women have ever skated better.

The Men: Look for strong individual performances from two-time bronze medalist J.R. Celski and first-time Olympian Eddy Alvarez. The men won silver in the relay in 2010. Whether or not they will be able to repeat this remains to be seen, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed. I think they have what it takes to make it onto the podium. One thing is certain though: Team USA’s biggest competition in the relay will come from the Canadians and the Koreans.

Note: Look for Apolo Ohno in the commentator's booth.

This year the Winter Olympics have fully embraced their innate Xgames element with several new events. Xgames athletes are awesome; you get the impression they’re always rooting for each other to do something cool. Makes for an awesome atmosphere. Check out the new Xgames additions: ski slopestyle, ski halfpipe, and even MORE snowboarding events.

For snowboarding we’ll likely be seeing a lot of familiar faces shredding in Sochi. Shaun White clinched an Olympic berth in the Men’s Snowboard Slopestyle. On the women’s side 2002 gold medalist Kelly Clark, punched her ticket to Sochi with her recent Grand Prix win.

And for the first time, they’re adding women’s ski jumping, pioneered by American Lindsey Van.

You can find a full schedule of events from NBC here.
A million thanks to Beth Pond for her insight and expertise. Check out her new novel PODIUM FINISH, and go Team USA!

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