Team USA aims for Winter Olympics dominance in Sochi

The United States’ Olympic team, which has never competed on the home ground of its old Soviet-era rival, plans to build on a world-leading haul of 37 medals from the 2010 Vancouver Games at the first Winter Games held in Russia.

The United States will take a record number of 230 athletes to Sochi with the goal of overtaking Canada in the gold-medal count.

X Games stars could capitalize on new podium opportunities in freeskiing and snowboarding events that play to Americans’ strengths — and make up for weaknesses the United States is likely to experience in figure skating and speedskating.

Here is a selection of Americans to watch during the Feb. 7-23 Olympics at venues that stretch from Black Sea shores to Caucasus Mountain slopes:

Meryl Davis and Charlie White

Partners on the ice since they were 9-year-olds, Davis, 27, and White, 26, are the best and probably only hope for U.S. gold in figure skating, and are favored to win the first-ever U.S. gold in ice dancing, the discipline that used to be the Americans’ worst. They won world titles in 2011 and 2013, and have earned respect for a discipline that used to be mocked as all style, no substance.

Davis and White share a coach with and train near Detroit alongside their Canadian rivals, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, gold medalists in 2010. Davis and White will skate their long program to Scheherazade by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

“It never hurts to have the support of the crowd, not only in the team itself but being involved in the music and the story it is we’re trying to tell,” Davis said of their choice. “We feel this is the right moment. We have grown into skaters who can make the most of this special music.”

Shaun White

Snowboard acrobat White, two-time gold medalist in halfpipe, has returned to his first love since he started in the sport at age 6 — slopestyle snowboarding. The expansion of the Olympic menu to include the terrain-style event means White can go for double gold in Sochi.

Everyone is talking about the latest twist to his halfpipe routine — a frontside double-cork 1440 that adds an extra half revolution to the two flips of the Double McTwist 1260 he performed in 2010. White perfected his newest trick on a secluded halfpipe in Perisher, Australia.

“It’s just a level of commitment,” White said on a GoPro video of the maneuver. “You’ve got to be in the right mind-set.”

He’s been managing an ankle injury this season, and got a black eye on a hard fall last week, yet so far none of his competitors have unveiled tricks even close to White’s in terms of difficulty.

Ted Ligety

The world’s best giant slalom skier looks forward to competing on Sochi’s moderately steep but lengthy course.

“It’s about 25 seconds longer than most,” Ligety said. “My legs were burning midway, not to even mention at the bottom.”

Ligety, 2006 Olympic champ in combined, has won four of the past six season titles in GS. He’s known for his powerful, sharply-angled turns and for his nickname-sake company, Shred, maker of helmets and goggles.

At the 2013 World Championships, Ligety’s three golds in super G, GS and super combined made him the first man since Jean Claude Killy in 1968 to pull off a hat trick. His chief rival is Austrian Marcel Hirscher, and never count out Bode Miller, 36, competing in his fifth Olympics.

Mikaela Shiffrin

Teen phenom Mikaela Shiffrin might have upstaged Lindsey Vonn on the Rosa Khutor slopes, but now that Vonn has withdrawn after reinjuring her knee, Shiffrin is the clear favorite among nine American women alpine skiers to win a gold medal — or two.

Shiffrin, 18, is the reigning world slalom champion and has won three of five races this season. She also has a chance in giant slalom, given her improvement.

“It’s a really big bummer that Lindsey won’t be there to lead the way. But I’m also really excited. I’m not seeing the pressure as a negative, I’m using it as fuel for the fire,” said Shiffrin, who grew up in Vail, Colo. “Like Bode [Miller] said, it’s not about racing to beat somebody but skiing the mountain the way it is meant to be skied.”

Teammate Julia Mancuso owns three Olympic medals and, despite an unpromising season so far, she tends to be a clutch performer, especially in the speed events.

Kikkan Randall

If you think cross-country skiing is dominated by Norwegians, pay attention to Alaska’s Randall. In her fourth Games, Randall, 31, could become the first U.S. woman and the first American to win an Olympic medal in the sport since Bill Koch brought home silver in 1976.

Randall has steadily moved up the ranks since finishing 60th in 2002 and placing sixth in the team sprint with Caitlin Compton four years ago — the best finish ever by U.S. women.

In a breakthrough season, she edged Norway’s Marit Bjoergen by .07 seconds to win the 2013 World Cup sprint title and partnered with Jessie Diggins to win the world championship team sprint.

“We’re in contention for the first time in my Games experience,” Randall said of U.S. Nordic depth. “I remember being at my first Olympics at Salt Lake. It really feels like the blink of an eye.”

Tom Wallisch

Wallisch is a fan favorite in the sport of freeskiing, specializing in the slopestyle discipline where he’s known for his innovative rail routines. The X Games, Dew Tour and world champion combines artistry and athletic skill.

“It’s like a skate park for skiers,” Wallisch said. “There are a lot of options on the Sochi course. You could see 10 people ski it and then the 11th person goes and you never imagined you could see that.”

Wallisch, a Pittsburgh native, is eager to introduce Olympic viewers to his spinning, flipping, slipping and grabbing tricks.

“It’s a young sport that started here, which means making the U.S. team is as hard or harder than making the top 10 at the Olympics,” he said. “That gives us a great advantage. So many guys are pushing each other.”

Jessica Jerome

Jerome made history by becoming the first athlete selected to the first U.S. Olympic women’s ski jumping team for the sport’s first appearance at the Olympics. After a 10-year battle with Olympic authorities that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, women will get to fly like the men have been flying since 1924.

Jerome beat 2009 world champion Lindsey Van by two points at the Olympic trials at her home venue in Park City, Utah. The top American, defending world champ Sarah Hendrickson, has been recovering from August knee surgery and was named to the team as a discretionary choice. Because Hendrickson has been hurt, 17-year-old Sara Takanashi of Japan — who stands 4-11 — has emerged as the favorite with her football-field-length jumps.

Jerome started jumping in second grade and was a fore-jumper at the Salt Lake City Games. Her personal record is 138 meters. She’ll join 29 women on the Olympic hill Feb. 11.

Steven Holcomb

Holcomb is pilot of the “Night Train” bobsled that broke the 62-year U.S. Olympic winless streak with a dramatic gold-medal performance at the 2010 Games. He’s aiming for double gold in Sochi, in two-man and four-man. Holcomb’s driving savvy should serve him well on Sochi’s curvy, technical track — it even has two uphill sections — that is in sharp contrast to the speed layout of Whistler (British Columbia), but the Russians will log a substantial training-time advantage over adversaries.

The U.S. women, with Alana Meyers steering, also could return to the podium. Look for Lolo Jones — brakeman in winter, track star in summer — to attract attention for the sport.

Julie Chu

Chu, oldest member of the ice hockey team, will be making her fourth trip to the Olympics with the goal of beating archrival Canada for the gold. The United States won the inaugural Olympic women’s hockey gold medal in 1998; Canada has swept every gold since.

Chu, 31, a former Harvard forward who has played for the Montreal Stars of the Canadian women’s league, is one of 11 returning Olympians on the squad that beat Canada at the 2013 world championships in Ottawa. Two of the pre-Sochi U.S.-Canada games ended in brawls.

Tucker Fredricks

Long track speedskater Fredricks is taking one more shot at an Olympic podium spot after disappointing finishes of 24th in 2006 and 12th in 2010.

The former World Cup champion has been dealing with back pain from a bulging disk, and contemplated retirement after a mediocre 2013 season. But the Janesville, Wis., native, encouraged by his wife — who is a former speedskater from Japan — and Japanese rival Joji Kato, will go for the Olympic medal in the 500 meters that has eluded him.

Fredricks, 29, who is taking a different approach to hitting his peak speed, could be one of the feel-good stories of the Games.

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