As the calendar page turns to December, Team USA fans can look forward to a cornucopia of winter sports action as athletes seek momentum for the coming year. Here are 10 notable storylines that will make this month more than just looking forward to the holiday season.
1) Sarah Hendrickson Begins Second Comeback In Women’s Ski Jumping
A pioneer in women’s ski jumping, Sarah Hendrickson is mounting her second comeback campaign and will test her twice-injured right knee in the world cup season opener Dec. 2-3 in Lillehammer, Norway.
Until her first injury in August 2013, Hendrickson was a dominant force in the emerging world of women’s ski jumping. In the run-up to the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, she had gathered 13 world cup wins, an overall world cup crown and the 2013 world championship. But six months shy of Sochi, a training injury took her on a sharp detour. An aggressive rehabilitation regimen got her well enough to earn a spot on the Olympic team and the honor of being the first woman down the hill in the sport’s Olympic debut, but her performance wasn’t what she had hoped.
After finishing eighth overall in her first world cup season back from injury, Hendrickson again encountered training misfortune in June 2015, re-injuring the same knee. With her sights set on the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, she elected to sit out the 2015-16 season and underwent major knee reconstruction. She will get to put the knee to the test in Lillehammer and again one wee later in Nizhny Tagil, Russia. After a break for the holidays, she will return to the weekly grind of the world cup schedule throughout January and the beginning of February, leading to the world championships March 10 in Olso, Norway.
2) Will Home-Ice Advantage Kick-Start Another Record Season In Luge?
Members of the U.S. luge team enjoyed a benchmark season last year, producing a record total of 17 world cup medals. With three world cup meets in North America, including two on U.S. tracks, can we look forward to even more success in the last full season before the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games?
Out of the 18 medals won last season, only three were won outside North America, making the first three weekends of December critical to U.S. medal hopes. The first stop of the trifecta on Dec. 2-3 is Lake Placid, New York, where American lugers have excelled. Led by three-time Olympian Erin Hamlin, the 2014 Olympic bronze medalist, and two-time Olympian Chris Mazdzer, the U.S. was dominant. In addition to a first-ever team relay gold medal, the U.S. scored its first podium sweep in women’s singles on the way to six medals, setting a tone for the record-setting season. After a victory in Lake Placid, Mazdzer built on the momentum he established, taking gold in Park City, Utah, the following weekend and silver in Calgary, Alberta, seven days later. He finished the season with a total of two golds, two silvers and a bronze to place third in the world cup rankings, while Tucker West collected a silver and a bronze on his way to seventh in the overall standings.
After a singles podium sweep in Lake Placid last year, the U.S. women had ample momentum of their own heading to Park City and Calgary. By the time the dust had cleared, Summer Britcher, a 2014 Olympian, ended the three meets with a total of five medals, including three golds, while Hamlin racked up five medals (three silvers) and Emily Sweeney collected silver. Britcher’s victories in the sprint races in Park City and Calgary propelled her to third in the final overall world cup standings for the event, while all three American women finished the season in the top eight in the singles rankings – Hamlin fourth, Britcher fifth and Sweeney eighth.
Following the Lake Placid stop, the world cup schedule continues with stops at two Olympic tracks: Dec. 9-10 in Whistler, British Columbia, the 2010 Olympic venue and Dec. 16-17 in Park City, on the track from the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympic Winter Games.
3) No Shortage Of Storylines On The U.S. Speedskating Teams
With more storylines than a daytime drama, the U.S. speedskating teams may be the most fascinating squads to follow this season.
Already one individual medal ahead of their total from last season, the U.S. short track speedskating team heads to Asia for two meets, with world cup stops Dec. 9-11 in Shanghai and Dec. 16-18 at the 2018 Olympic venue in Gangneung, South Korea.
With his 1,000-meter bronze medal at the meet in Salt Lake City, John-Henry Krueger earned the U.S. its first individual world cup medal since the 2014-15 season. A student of the Chinese language, he can look forward to practicing his linguistic skills in Shanghai as well as focus on continuing his competitive success there, having won silver and bronze there two years at 500 meters and 1,500 meters, respectively. Sidelined by an overuse injury, three-time Olympic medalist J.R. Celski may be back on the ice for the Asian swing, which will bolster the U.S. team hopes.
A pleasant surprise has been the return of two-time Olympic medalist Katherine Reutter from a three-year retirement. After ongoing injuries forced her to retire in February 2013, she elected to stage a comeback, setting a modest goal for this season of reaching the quarterfinals at her first two world cups. She exceeded that goal, finishing in the top six in three finals thus far this season.
In long track, comeback stories abound, led by KC Boutiette. The 46-year-old has shown he’s still got his chops at the distance events, taking silver in the mass start last month in Nagano, Japan, to become the oldest speedskater ever to earn a world cup medal. Brian Hansen, a two-time Olympian who earned team pursuit silver in Vancouver, will to return to world cup competition for the first time in three years when the team competes in Astana, Kazakhstan.
The returning skaters bolster a veteran core of the men’s team that includes Shani Davis and Joey Mantia. The most decorated American long track speedskater and a four-time Olympian, Davis continues a career that includes two Olympic golds, two Olympic silver medals and 19 world titles. Mantia leads the 1,500-meter world cup standings with 150 points after his win in Nagano in November.
The women’s side doesn’t lack for comeback stories either. Take Mia Manganello, who started her long track career at the age of 13, then decided after the 2010 Olympic Trials to pursue professional cycling. After five years on the bike, she returned to speedskating and earned a fourth-place finish in mass start in her return to the world cup stage. There’s also Brittany Bowe, the reigning world cup champion at both 1,000 and 1,500 meters. She plans to make her return to competition at the Dec. 9-11 meet in Heerenveen, Netherlands.
And then there’s Heather Bergsma, a two-time Olympian with 10 world championship medals to her credit. She started her season by winning the 1,000 and 1,500 at both of the first two world cup stops, setting track records each time.
4) Bobsled Squad Looks To Continue Last Season’s Success
Paced by veteran pilots Jamie Greubel Poser, Elana Meyers Taylor and Steven Holcomb, the U.S. bobsled team is poised to repeat a stellar 2015-16 world cup season when it opens Dec. 2-3 in Whistler.
The U.S. women roll into the new world cup season brimming with confidence after a stellar 2015-16 season which saw them on the podium at each of the eight races. Greubel Poser, the 2014 Olympic bronze medalist, scored a silver medal in Whistler last season, one of six medals she collected on the way to second in the overall world cup standings. She is teamed in with Lauren Gibbs, who pushed for Meyers Taylor and won bronze at last season’s world championships, at the Whistler stop. Paired with push athlete Kehri Jones for the first stop of the season, Meyers Taylor will look to pick up where she left off at the end of last season, when she won back-to-back gold medals.
Returning to the site of his Olympic gold medal in the four-man, Holcomb has performed well on one of the world’s most challenging tracks, racking up three world cup medals in Whistler. Two American pilots will take on the twists and turns of Whistler for the first time: Codie Bascue, a 2012 Youth Olympian who dominated the trials to score his third national team selection; and Justin Olsen, a two-time Olympian who won gold with Holcomb in Vancouver as a push athlete.
A week after the Whistler opener, the team will race in the familiar surroundings of Lake Placid, where Holcomb and Greubel Poser scored gold medals last season.
5) Mikaela Shiffrin Isn’t The Only Story On The Slopes
While the world may be watching to see if Mikaela Shiffrin can break the record with her 11th consecutive world cup slalom victory, the alpine skiing team offers much more to pique the interest of the casual observer. Take Ted Ligety, for example, a two-time Olympic champion who has carved his legend in giant slalom. A five-time world cup season champion in the event, he also has three world titles and 2014 Olympic gold to his credit in the event. Fifth in the first giant slalom race of the season, he will look to improve his standing in Val d’Isere Dec. 4 as the world cup tour swings into high gear in Europe.
Steven Nyman, a three-time Olympian, reached the podium in men’s downhill four times in a row last season, something no U.S. men’s downhiller had ever achieved. He begins his 2016-17 campaign in Val d’Isere as well. After two Olympic medals in the super-G (bronze in 2010, silver in 2014), Andrew Weibrecht finally broke through last season to score his first two world cup podium finishes, a third in Beaver Creek, Colorado, and a second in Kitzbühel, Austria, and hopes to build on that success in the new season.
6) Antoine, O’Shea Lead Skeleton Squad Into World Cup Openers
Matt Antoine, the 2014 Olympic bronze medalist in men’s skeleton, leads the U.S. team into the 2016-17 world cup season, which opens Dec. 2-3 in Whistler. It’s a track Antoine knows well, having won his first world cup medal, a bronze, there in 2009. He combined with then-national team rookie Nathan Crumpton to give the U.S. two top-10 finishes on the Whistler track last season. After taking a year off, 2014 Olympian Kyle Tress will return to action in Whistler and Lake Placid, where he has scored top-10 finishes in each of his last three starts.
O’Shea a favorite for the Whistler-Lake Placid combination after her showing at those venues last season. With a silver in Canada and a gold on her home track, she garnered valuable points that propelled her to fourth in the final world cup rankings, only seven points away from third place. Without the services of three-time Olympian Katie Uhlaender, who is recovering from illness, the U.S. will look to Kendall Wesenberg and Savannah Graybill to gain valuable world cup experience.
7) 10 Olympians Highlight Team USA At Short Course Swimming Worlds
Led by two-time Olympic gold medalist Lilly King, 10 members of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team, including eight medalists, are part of the 35-athlete roster that will represent the United States at the 13th FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) Dec. 6-11 in Windsor, Ontario.
King will be joined by three-time Olympian Amanda Weir, who has medaled in three different Olympic Games (2004, 2012, 2016), and Cody Miller, a two-time medalist in Rio who earned silver and bronze medals in relays at the 2014 short course worlds. Other Rio Olympians who will compete in Windsor are Molly Hannis, Jacob Pebley, Blake Pieroni, Josh Prenot, Tom Shields, Leah Smith and Kelsi Worrell. Prenot and Smith also won individual Olympic medals in Rio, while Shields holds the American short course records in three events: the 50-, 100- and 200-meter butterfly.
Also on the squad is Clara Smiddy, a gold medalist in the 100-meter backstroke at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games who also won bronzes in 100- and 200-meter backstroke at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games.
8) Will The Fourth Time Be The Charm For The Shib Sibs?
Figure skating’s grand prix series culminates with the Grand Prix Final Dec. 8-11 in Marseilles, France, with an intriguing set of storylines developing in ice dance. Only two teams have won Grand Prix Final gold in the last seven years. Meryl Davis and Charlie White reeled off an unprecedented five consecutive championships from 2009 to 2014. Having not competed since their 2014 Olympic title, their mantle was passed to Canadians Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, who won the next two.
However, Weaver and Poje placed seventh in this year’s grand prix standings and are on the sidelines, creating a void at the top of the podium. The list of contenders is impressive, including two-time reigning world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France and Canada’s Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, two-time world champions and reigning Olympic silver medalists who returned to competition last February and seek their first final gold after four silver-medal finishes from 2009-13.
Taking gold in their two grand prix assignments, siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani qualified for their fourth Grand Prix Final. Silver medalists at last year’s world championship, they have placed fourth at the final the past two years after placing fifth at their first appearance in 2011 and hope to earn their first medal this season. Madison Chock and Evan Bates have taken the silver medal at last two Grand Prix Finals and have worlds silver (2015) and bronze (2016) to their credit. Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue round out the American entries in ice dancing. Both Chock and Bates and Hubbell and Donohue earned silvers at their two grand prix assignments.
The U.S. also scored two entries in the men’s division, breaking a four-year drought and marking the first time since 2009 that more than one American man has taken the ice at a Grand Prix Final. Adam Rippon earned his spot with a pair of bronze medals, while 17-year-old Nathan Chen won his invitation with a silver medal at the NHK Trophy, becoming the youngest American man to medal in a grand prix event, and a fourth place at Trophee de France.
9) Must-Watch TV: Team USA Winter Champions Series
On Dec. 17, Olympic winter sports fans will be treated to the first-ever Team USA Winter Champions Series, a single-day television event that will feature three Olympic sports.
Beginning at 2:30 p.m. ET, snowboarding and luge will take center stage on NBC. The big air snowboarding world cup from Copper Mountain, Colorado, and the luge world cup from Park City, Utah, will be featured. The action then moves indoors to Plymouth, Michigan, for women’s ice hockey competition. The only two nations to win world championship and Olympic gold, longtime rivals Team USA and Canada face off at 4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.
10) Who Will Emerge On The U.S. Aerials Team This Season?
With the start of the freestyle aerials skiing world cup season scheduled for Dec. 17-18 in Beida Lake, China, the question that hovers is whether this will be a comeback season for Mac Bohonnon and Kiley McKinnon, and will Ashley Caldwell continue her winning ways of 2015-16?
Bohonnon and McKinnon finished the 2014-15 season atop the aerials standings, scoring a combined 10 podium finishes, with Bohonnon taking victories in Lake Placid and Moscow. The following season wasn’t as kind, however, as Bohonnon’s repeat victory in Moscow and McKinnon’s third-place showing at the season opener in Beijing were the only podiums the two could muster.
On the women’s side, that simply opened the door for Caldwell, who stepped up to take the aerials season crown after finishing second to McKinnon the year before. A two-time Olympian, Caldwell scored victories in Beijing and Minsk, Belarus, extending a string of success that began with her top-10 finish at the Sochi Games.
The U.S. men came on strong in the last two meets last season. Bohonnon was joined on the Moscow podium by Jonathon Lillis, who finished second. One week later, it was Lillis’ brother, Christopher, who scored a victory in Minsk, giving the American men enough points to claim their second consecutive Nations Cup in aerials, a feat the women matched.