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10 Reasons To Follow Olympic Sports This February

By Craig Bohnert | Feb. 02, 2017, 6:49 p.m. (ET)

February is loaded with key landmarks for Team USA’s winter sports athletes, most notably Feb. 8, the day when the countdown to the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games shifts from years to simply months and weeks. The next four weeks are filled with world cups, Olympic test events and world championships where skiers, sliders, riders and skaters hope to position themselves as medal favorites in the critical 12 months leading to the Games. Here are 10 storylines that will make this month exciting:

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1) Battle Begins For Olympic Qualifying In Aerials, Halfpipe, Slopestyle

The world’s top athletes in halfpipe and slopestyle skiing and snowboarding will gather in Mammoth, California, while the elite in aerials head to Deer Valley, Utah – two different destinations, both with one purpose in mind: Reach the podium and get a leg up in the qualification process for PyeongChang 2018. The two events the first weekend in February begin a string of qualifying events during the coming year.

2) No Rest For Lugers After Best-Ever Worlds Showing

After earning three medals at last weekend’s luge world championships, Team USA’s reward will be plenty of frequent flyer miles as they literally go around the world to conclude their world cup schedule. First up is Oberhof, Germany, Feb. 4-5, then they’re off to Korea for a world cup Olympic test event on the Alpensia track Feb. 18-19 before scurrying back to Germany Feb. 25-26 for another world cup race in Altenberg.

Newly crowned sprint world champion Erin Hamlin is third in the cup standings, with teammate Emily Sweeney only six points behind, while the doubles team of Matt Mortensen and Jayson Terdiman is third. After a strong showing to help secure the team relay silver at worlds, Tucker West hopes to improve his No. 5 spot in the standings.

3) Shiffrin Seeks Third Straight Slalom Gold At Worlds

One of the more intriguing storylines to follow at the 2017 Alpine World Ski Championships, set for Feb. 7-19 in St. Moritz, Switzerland, will be Mikaela Shiffrin’s quest for a third consecutive slalom world title. No American woman has won three straight world gold medals in any event, and Shiffrin could become only the second to take three straight slalom titles and the first since the event went to a biennial schedule in 1948. Germany’s Christi Cranz won three straight of the annual events from 1937-39.

4) Beach Volleyball Season Gets Underway In Florida

Yes, you read that right…beach volleyball in February! The Fort Lauderdale Major Feb. 7-12 will kick off the 2017 season in Florida with an impressive lineup that includes Rio Olympic champions Alison and Bruno Schmidt as well as Team USA’s Nick Lucena and Phil Dalhausser. The women’ side will showcase three-time Olympic champion Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross, last summer’s Olympic bronze medalists. With a new season comes the first look at new team combinations, including Olympians Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson and Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Sweat working with new partners.

5) Can Team USA Return To Biathlon Worlds Podium?

Team USA has won only three medals at the biathlon world championships: bronze in the 1984 women’s team relay and silvers in the men’s individual 20-kilometer by Josh Thompson in 1989 and Tim Burke in 2013. This year’s medal hopes will be carried by Susan Dunklee, who earned the only world cup medal won by an American so far this season, a bronze last December in the 7.5-kilometer sprint. She was also Team USA’s only medalist last season when she took silver in the same event in Presque Isle, Maine. The 49th Biathlon World Championships will be held Feb. 9-19 in Hochfilzen, Austria.

6) Long Track Stars Bergsma And Davis Lead Team USA To Single Distances Championships

It’s not a stretch to call Shani Davis’ achievements at the world single distances championships legendary. Consider that the United States has won a total of 50 medals in the event’s history, including 15 golds. Davis owns 30 percent of those medals (15) and more than half of the golds (8). So when the lights are turned up at the Gangneung Oval, the four-time Olympic medalist will be one of the skaters to watch based on reputation alone. Also keep an eye on Heather Bergsma, who hopes to remain undefeated this season at 1,000 meters and already owns six medals from three editions of the event. The test event for the PyeongChang 2018 Games begins Feb. 9, the day the one-year countdown to Opening Ceremony begins.

7) Four Continents Will Test Chens And Ice Dancers

The first major test for newly-crowned national champions Nathan Chen and Karen Chen is the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships, set for Feb. 15-19 in Gangneung, Korea. With a silver from December’s Grand Prix Final and the distinction of being the first skater to land five quads in a program, Nathan Chen will have the artillery necessary to take on all comers. The Four Continents will give Karen Chen a chance to ease into the world spotlight ahead of the world championships at the end of March, while Maia and Alex Shibutani hope to become the first ice dancers to successfully defend a Four Continents title since Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto accomplished a three-peat from 2004-06. But they could face stiff competition from fellow Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates, who hope to reach the top step of the podium after earning silver the past two years.

8) Bobsled And Skeleton Ready To Return to Königssee Track For Worlds

Team USA’s bobsledders return to Germany’s Königssee track for the 2017 world championships Feb. 13-26, only two weeks after a stellar world cup performance there. Although some would say the shorter 1.27-kilometer track minimizes the advantage more experienced drivers enjoy, don’t tell Steven Holcomb. The three-time Olympian earned his first medal on a German track in eight years with a silver in two-man and missed a four-person bronze by 0.01 seconds by finding speed at the bottom of the course.

After reeling off her third straight win at Königssee, Elana Meyers Taylor hopes to return to the top of the podium and pick up her seventh worlds medal in the past eight years. Teammate Jamie Greubel Poser may be her biggest competition after a silver in Germany tightened her grip on second in the world cup standings.

With two podiums in his first two races this season, Matt Antoine got Team USA’s skeleton world cup season got off to a flying start on two North American tracks, but that momentum may have been in lost checked baggage when the schedule moved to Europe in January. Thus far Kendall Wesenberg’s first medal, a silver in St. Mortiz, Switzerland, has been the only podium overseas.

9) Bergsma Chases Blair At World Sprint Speedskating Championships

Heather Bergsma will be chasing a piece of history at the World Sprint Speedskating Championships Feb. 25-26 in Calgary, Alberta. A podium finish would put her name alongside Bonnie Blair and Germans Christa Rothenburger and Karin Kania as the only four women to medal at five consecutive sprint worlds. Bergsma earned silver the past two years behind teammate Brittany Bowe, who is out the rest of this season as she continues to recover from a concussion suffered in July.

10) Diggins Back To Defend Silver At Nordic World Championships

Team USA’s cross-country, Nordic combined and ski jumping teams will head to Lahti, Finland, Feb. 22-March 5, hoping to party like it’s 2009, when four medals were brought home, among them a cross-country silver by Kikkan Randall. The best hopes for a medal this year rest with Jessie Diggins, the 10-kilometer silver medalist two years ago in Falun, Sweden, part of the first cross-country worlds double podium for the U.S. Diggins and Randall combined in 2013 to win the team sprint gold. Currently fifth in the world cup standings, Diggins is the highest-ranked Team USA Nordic competitor. Ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson continues her comeback from injury and hopes to reach the podium again after taking the 2013 title.