Some athletes headed to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, are already household names in the United States — snowboarder Shaun White, speedskater Shani Davis and skier Ted Ligety. Others, such as teen phenom skier Mikaela Shiffrin and figure skaters Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner, will likely make their way onto the American sports radar sometime over the next month.
But there are 2,500 athletes from 85 countries competing in these Olympics, and the stars likely to emerge are largely unknown outside their home nations. Here are some names to keep an eye on:• Ayumu Hirano, Japan, snowboarding : He surely will be the tiniest man on the mountain, but this pint-sized 15-year-old snowboarder has big moves and is expected to battle White for the gold medal.
Hirano, who is 5-1 and 120 pounds, became an overnight sensation in January 2013 when two months after turning 14, he won the silver medal in superpipe behind White at the X Games. In August, he won his first World Cup event in New Zealand.
He is known to fly 19 feet out of the pipe.
“He’s a bad ass,” Canadian snowboarder Mike McMorris has said of Hirano. “He goes big, and he’s, like, two feet tall. In two years, he’ll be the cat’s meow.”
Hirano was first noticed at 12, when he competed in the U.S. Open Junior Championships in Vermont and held his own with the pros, finishing in 13th place.
Shortly after that event, Hirano and his older brother, Eiju, moved to the United States to train. They split time between their home in Murakami, Japan, and San Clemente, Calif.
Hirano’s father initially thought his sons would be surfers, but they were drawn to skateboarding and snowboarding. Looks like they made the right decision.• Tina Maze, Slovenia, alpine skiing : She reached the top of the Slovenian pop music charts with her hit, My Way is My Decision, and Maze also was the undisputed world’s best all-around skier in 2013 with world titles in the giant slalom, Super G and combined. She finished second in slalom and downhill.
She had 11 World Cup wins, reached the podium a world-record 24 times and earned 2,414 points, breaking the previous record of 2,000 set by Austrian legend Herman Maier in the 2000 season. Maze is one of just three women ever to win Cups in all five disciplines in a single season.
Maze, 30, took two silver medals at the 2010 Olympics and is expected to win at least one or two golds in Sochi.
When she isn’t skiing, she loves to sing and design jewelry. Maze is known to entertain fellow skiers at hotel pianos on the road, and her first pop recording was an overnight sensation in Slovenia.• Erik Guay, Canada, alpine skiing : The most decorated alpine skier in Canadian history, Guay, 32, is aiming for the one prize that has eluded him — an Olympic medal.
He was injured two weeks before the 2006 Torino Olympics, withdrew from the downhill and finished fourth in the Super G, missing a bronze medal by one-tenth of a second. Four years later, in Vancouver, he finished fifth in the two speed events, again missing the podium.
Despite a few more injuries, Guay has excelled in the past two years, and last weekend in Bormio, Italy, won bronze in the World Cup downhill. That was his 21st top-three finish, surpassing the national record set by Steve Podborski, one of the famed five “Crazy Canucks,” a group of Canadian skiers who made a splash in the 1970s and 1980s and were known for their renegade style.• Mao Asada, Japan, figure skating : Most figure skaters would be thrilled with an Olympic silver medal, but most skaters are not among the few women in history to land a triple axel, so second place did not sit well with Asada in Vancouver four years ago.
Asada, the two-time world champion, was favored to win gold in 2010 because of her artistry and mastery of the triple axel, a jump typically only done by men. But she was outskated by the graceful Kim Yu-Na of South Korea on that night and had to settle for second place.
Asada struggled with her jumping after the Olympics, got frustrated, and then hit rock bottom in December 2011, when her mother, Kyoko, died after a long battle with liver disease. Asada considered retiring, but coaches urged her to stick with it and she decided to skate through the Sochi Olympics as a tribute to her mother.
She is skating with more joy and levity these days and in December won the Grand Prix final in Fukuoka, Japan. Her main competition in Sochi is expected to once again be Kim, who is attempting to become just the third woman to win consecutive gold medals, joining Sonya Henie (1928-1932-1936) and Katarina Witt (1984 and 1988).• Alex Ovechkin, Russia, hockey : Nobody loves hockey more than Russians. OK, maybe Canadians. And we saw what a big deal the Canadian hockey team was at the Vancouver Olympics four years ago. Expect that, and then some, for the Russian hockey team in Sochi.
Of all the Russian hockey stars, the most famous is Alex Ovechkin, captain of the Washington Capitals. It should come as no surprise that he is playing in his third Olympics because of his bloodlines. His mother, Tatyana, won two Olympic gold medals in basketball in 1976 and 1980. His father, Mikail, was a professional soccer player.
Ovechkin was the first pick in the 2004 NHL Draft and became an instant sensation once he hit the ice. The 28-year-old is a deadly shooter, and leads the NHL with 39 goals.
He is determined to bring glory back to a Russian Olympic team that has fallen short of expectations in recent years. Russia won silver in 1998, bronze in 2002, finished fourth in 2006 and sixth in 2010. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union, the USSR won gold medals in seven of the nine Olympics from 1956 to 1988, and took silver and bronze in the other two.• Patrick Chan, Canada, figure skating : The three-time reigning world champion is eager to redeem himself after a disappointing fifth-place finish at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. He enters these Games as a gold-medal favorite, along with Evgeni Plushenko of Russia, and aims to become to first Canadian man to win an Olympic gold in singles skating.
Chan used to say it is not necessary to have a quadruple jump to win the Olympics, but he now does two in the first minute of his long program. His programs are so technically difficult that he has broken world records for scoring. He recently won Skate Canada, an Olympic tune-up event, and won silver at the Grand Prix final in Japan, behind Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan.
Chan’s parents are both from Hong Kong. His mother was a competitive tennis player and his father a table tennis player. But Chan’s love was winter sports. He loved downhill skiing and ice hockey as a young boy, and gravitated toward figure skating. He had been training in Colorado Springs, Colo., but last year moved his base to Detroit, where several Canadian skaters have relocated.• Torah Bright, Australia, snowboarding : The Australian snowboarder with the memorable name (“Torah” is the Hebrew word for the Five Books of Moses, and the name is said to mean “bearer of great message”) won gold in Vancouver four years ago and is poised to do it again.
Bright, 27, won gold in the halfpipe in 2010 with her signature move, a switch backside 720 that features two rotations and a blind landing.
In Sochi, Bright plans to compete in three events — halfpipe, slopestyle, and snowboard cross. She was the first Australian to win a gold at the X Games and has become a big star in her sports-crazed country. Her older sister, Rowena, competed in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, where Torah now lives and trains.
Bright is a Mormon, and when she is not snowboarding, she is busy designing and modeling her ski clothing line for Roxy.• Bob de Jong, Netherlands, speedskating : De Jong always has been known for his slow starts and strong finishes, which is why he is known as “Diesel.” Even when he was a soccer player in his youth, he said he was always the only one running full speed at the end of the match.
It makes sense, then, that he was attracted to the distance events in speedskating and that he has won three Olympic medals in the 10,000 meters — gold in 2006, silver in 1998 and bronze in 2010. He failed to medal in 2002, finishing 15th in the 10,000 and 30th in the 5,000.
He later called Salt Lake City his worst competition ever. But he kept racing and was back on the podium in Vancouver.
De Jong, 37, is competing in his fifth Olympics and is a seven-time world champion with five titles at 10,000 meters and two at 5,000 meters. He is a big star in the Netherlands. After the Vancouver Games, he participated in the Dutch version of Dancing With The Stars and he reached the final four. He also was featured on a TV reality show called Peking Express, similar to The Amazing Race. De Jong earned an engineering degree in 2003 and in his spare time works as a part-time bridge engineer.• Aksel Lund Svindal, Norway, alpine skiing : Norway is best known for its cross-country skiers, but in recent years, downhill skier Svindal has been stealing the spotlight. Svindal, 31, won the Olympic gold medal in Super G in Vancouver four years ago and won silver in the downhill.
He has finished top five in his past six downhill races and was top five in 12 of his past 14 races, dating to March 2012.
The son of skiers, Svindal had skis on as soon as he could walk. In 2007, he was involved in a high-speed crash in which he cracked ribs, broke facial bones and sustained deep lacerations. He spent two weeks in the hospital and missed much of the next season.
But the crash didn’t change his love for speed. As soon as he could resume racing, he did, and never missed a beat.
Heading to Sochi, he is the man to beat in the downhill and could medal in Super G, as well.• Sara Takanashi, Japan, ski jumping : Women’s ski jumping makes its Olympic debut in Sochi, and there is no question the jumper to beat is the 4-11 Takanashi, who turned 17 in October. Takanashi has won four consecutive World Cup events, and last year, at age 16, won eight of 16 events and made the podium 13 times.
Takanashi’s parents are both ski jumpers, and she fell in love with the sport right away. She credits ballet training for her amazing balance and has said jumping off the ramp makes her feel like a bird.