Canada set out to “own the podium” in Vancouver in 2010, but it was its southern neighbor that took possession with 37 medals, even if the hosts did set the gold standard.
Though the US Olympic team could well top the table again at next year’s Winter Games in Sochi, it’s unlikely that the Americans will find as much precious metal around the Russian Riviera.
While they figure to win breakthrough medals in biathlon, cross-country, and jumping, the Yanks could come up empty in short-track speedskating and Nordic combined, where they won a combined 10 last time.
What should keep Uncle Sam atop the snow pile is his ability to spread the wealth among nearly a dozen sports and to grab fistfuls of medals from the slopes with the Alpine skiers, freestylers, and snowboarders, who could collect as many as 17. That’s more than the entire Russian team won last time. If the Americans want to toss them a half-dozen, Vladimir Putin might just give them a few miles of Black Sea beachfront in return.
A sport-by-sport look at the US prospects, with 2010 and projected 2014 medals in parentheses:
Alpine skiing (8/6)
Even if Olympic champions Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller don’t return to top form after surgery, there still will be plenty of potential for gold in Sochi’s slurpy hills for the Yanks. Ted Ligety, who won the giant slalom, Super G, and combined at the world championships, has the chops to pull off that unprecedented combination at Olympus. Mikaela Shiffrin, the teenaged wonderchild who won the world title Saturday, could be the first women’s champion in the slalom since Barbara Cochran in 1972, while Julia Mancuso could duplicate the pair of silvers she won in Whistler. If Vonn and Miller, who combined for five in 2010, contribute anything shiny, it’ll be gravy.
After half a century in the wilderness, could this be the year the ski-and-shoot bunch makes the medal stand? Tim Burke’s silver in the 20-kilometer event at last week’s world championships was the first for the US since Josh Thompson did it in Lake Placid in 1987. Thompson didn’t cash in at Calgary a year later but Burke will have other chances in the sprint and mass start. Now to get the women within range.
Steve Holcomb may not duplicate his breakthrough Whistler gold but he figures to be somewhere on the four-man podium along with Melrose native Steve Langton and also could make it in the two-man. Elana Meyers, who won the women’s bronze last time, could upgrade to silver, but beating Canada’s Kaillie Humphries for gold will be a tall order.
Not since Bill Koch in 1976 has the US put a flatlander on the podium, but Kikkan Randall could produce gold in the women’s sprint and bring a friend with her in the team event. On a good day, Andy Newell has what it takes to win a men’s sprint medal as well.
After a pair of rock-bottom efforts in Vancouver, it can’t get worse for the star-spangled stone-skippers. Both teams have made marked improvement since — the women were fifth at last year’s world tournament — but the podium looks to be out of reach.
Figure skating (2/1)
Unless Evan Lysacek can get back into gilded form after three years away from competition, everything will depend on dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the returning runners-up who’ll have to overtake Canadian world champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. Max Aaron and Gracie Gold are intriguing new faces but will need to improve by leaps and bounds to make the podium.
Freestyle skiing (4/6)
Could be half-again as productive now that halfpipe and slopestyle events have been added to the menu. Moguls champion Hannah Kearney and bronze medalist Bryon Wilson are back, accompanied by slopestyle aces Tom Wallisch and Keri Herman and halfpipers Maddie Bowman and Torin Yater-Wallace. How they fare may well depend upon whether they’re skiing in snow or slush.
Ice hockey (2/2)
Will the NHL opt for a sojourn by the Black Sea or not? Conversations with the IOC and the international federation began last week. If the clubs and players agree, then the US males, who came up with a surprise silver last time, again should be in the mix. If not, the Colorado Springs folks will have to assemble an eclectic bunch of minor leaguers, European ex-pats, and collegians. Mike Eruzione might want to hang on to his jerseys and gear, just in case. There’s far more certainty on the women’s side, where the US and Canada again will battle it out in the final after running double digits on everyone else. The Canucks, who deprived the Yanks of their world title on Vermont ice last year, are going for four golds in a row. They’ll likely have to work overtime to get it.
Not since 1924 have the Americans had a mid-air medalist, and Anders Haugen had to wait until a scoring error was corrected half a century later to collect it. There should be immediate gratification this time, though, as Sarah Hendrickson will be favored to claim the inaugural women’s gold, with former world champion Lindsey Van also in the chase. No chance for the men, although Peter Frenette could crack the top 30.
Long track speedskating (4/3)
If Shani Davis can regain his Vancouver form, the Americans well could collect another quartet of medals. Heather Richardson, who claimed the women’s world sprint title last month, will be favored for gold in the 1,000 meters and bronze in the 500 while Davis still is the man in the 1,000 and a contender in the 1,500.
The Americans have been sliding backward ever since they won two doubles medals on their Salt Lake track. Their only World Cup podiums this season have come on the Lake Placid run that they can negotiate blindfolded. Busting through the German monopoly is highly unlikely, but there are outside chances for Maine native Julia Clukey, former world champion Erin Hamlin, and the team relay.
Nordic combined (4/0)
Was that a one-hit wonder last time? After collecting a gold and three silvers in 2010, the Yanks have all but vanished. Billy Demong, Todd Lodwick, and Johnny Spillane are still competing but nowhere near podium form. The hopes this time ride with Fletcher Taylor and brother Bryan, who’ve made World Cup podiums and will be in the mix.
Short-track speedskating (6/0)
From half a dozen medals to zero in one quadrennium? That’s more than possible now that Apolo Anton Ohno has moved on (although he’s said to be flirting with a comeback) and Katherine Reutter this month announced her retirement after being plagued by injuries. The best chance rides with J.R. Celski, who won a bronze in the 1,500 meters last time and also will contend in the 1,000.
After a couple of near-misses in Whistler, the Yanks figure to make it back to the podium for the first time since the sport was reintroduced in 2002. Noelle Pikus-Pace, who came out of retirement to win world silver this winter, should make the stand, as could former global champion Katie Uhlaender. John Daly has an outside chance on the men’s side.
The Flying Tomato and most of his five-ringed friends continue to shred it. Shaun White, Scotty Lago, Hannah Teter, and Kelly Clark still have medal-level stuff in the halfpipe, Seth Wescott is capable of a third gold in snowboardcross, and Chas Guldemond could be gilded in the new slopestyle event. John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.