Three years ago, on a crisp February night in Sochi, Mikaela Shiffrin became the youngest skier ever — male or female — to win an Olympic gold medal in slalom. She was 18 back then and was one of nine Team USA athletes to win an Olympic title.
With the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games only a year away, Shiffrin has started thinking about her goals for those Games. She hopes to defend her slalom gold medal. If she does, she would become the first skier ever to win back-to-back Olympic golds in slalom and the seventh to defend an Olympic title in alpine skiing.
But that’s not all. Now a medal threat in giant slalom, Shiffrin could become the second American to win two gold medals at the same Games — matching the feat of Andrea Mead Lawrence at the 1952 Games. Shiffrin has competed in seven world cup giant slalom races so far this season, winning two and finishing no lower than sixth.
But wait! There’s more. She is also eyeing the combined and super-G in PyeongChang.
“Downhill isn’t even out of the question either,” she said on a conference call from Europe. “I’m trying to set myself up to be a medal contender in three or maybe even four events, which would really be incredible.”
It would be a tougher feat than a “three-peat” of her world championship slalom title, which she is aiming to win next week at the 2017 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
“The Olympics is at a whole other level because it’s once every four years,” she said. “It’s a huge stage. Everybody is watching, and it’s really the kind of thing that sets you up for the rest of your career. But right now, I’m just trying to focus on skiing my best.”
In addition to her one Olympic and two world champion gold medals, Shiffrin has won three world cup slalom titles and is on track to win her fourth this season. She is also in the running for her first overall world cup title, currently leading Switzerland’s Lara Gut by 180 points.
Rather than compete in the speed races (super-G, downhill and combined) this week at world championships, Shiffrin — a meticulous, detail-oriented skier — has opted to train this week rather than compete in the speed events at world championships. It’s mid-winter training that she calls priceless.
“These are the kinds of [training] periods where I can make breakthroughs with my skiing, with my equipment, and with my mentality that last me through the Olympics,” she said. “It could very well be the difference between a gold medal and coming in 10th place.”
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Shiffrin isn’t the only Team USA athlete hoping to defend an Olympic title at the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games. Most of the athletes who contributed to the nine Olympic gold medals won in Sochi are still competing. Here’s where they stand:
|Kaitlyn Farrington celebrates during the flower ceremony for women's snowboard halfpipe at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on Feb. 12, 2014 in Rosa Khutor, Russia.|
Only Kaitlyn Farrington, who famously “cowgirl-ed up” and won gold in snowboard halfpipe in Sochi, has retired. She was forced into retirement two years ago after doctors discovered that she has congenital cervical stenosis, a degenerative spine condition. She now calls herself a “grounded snowboarder” and recently posted photos on Instagram skiing Utah’s deep powder.
A two-time Olympic gold medalist, 32-year-old Ted Ligety is eyeing PyeongChang. But the three-time Olympian must first recover from back surgery. Once dominant in giant slalom, Ligety has had two setbacks in the past year. He tore his ACL in a training crash last January and missed the remainder of the season recovering from knee surgery. He came out strong in the season’s first world cup, finishing fifth in the Soelden giant slalom and hoped to win his fourth world title in the event. But then he cut his season short to have surgery on Jan. 17, 2017, this time to relieve back pain.
His agent confirmed that he decided to end his season early to have time to prepare post-surgery for the 2018 Winter Games.
“Since Soelden, I have been dealing with severe nerve pain down my left leg that has not allowed me to ski at the level that I expect of myself,” Ligety wrote on Instagram on Jan. 16. “I have seen many doctors and therapists, undergone an array of treatments and therapies to no effect. Unfortunately surgery (microdiscectomy) means my season is over and a chance to defend my GS title again at World Champs. This has been tough to accept especially after last season, but on the plus side hopefully this surgery will alleviate the back issues I have dealt with over the last few years. I will be back strong and fast again. Thanks for your support.”
The day after surgery, he tweeted that the microdiscectomy at L3-4 and L4-5 in his lower back went well and that, “I walked out and feel better already.”
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|Meryl Davis (L) and Charlie White celebrate during the medal ceremony for ice dance at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games on Feb. 18, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.|
America’s first ice dance Olympic champions, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, are still undecided about returning for the PyeongChang Games. Since winning the gold medal in Sochi — to go with the silver that they won in 2010 — Davis, 30, and White, 29, have not competed. But they have been skating exhibitions. And they have skated together for 20 years.
“We don’t know,” Davis told NBCSN during the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January. “Since we stepped off the ice in Sochi, for us it’s been all about trying new things and enjoying life in a different capacity that we didn’t get to while we were competing. We’re sort of leaving things on the table, and we’ll have to make a decision coming up here.”
Should they decide to return, they will face stiff competition to make the podium again. Their longtime Canadian rivals, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who won Olympic gold in 2010 and silver in 2014, returned earlier this season and have been the dominant team so far. French pair Gabrialla Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron won the world title the past two years. Meanwhile, there are several U.S. teams that are medal threats. Maia and Alex Shibutani won silver at the 2016 world championships and Madison Chock and Evan Bates have medaled at each the past two worlds.
At the U.S. championships in January, the Shibutanis scored 82.42 points in the short dance and shattered Davis and White’s previous record of 80.69 set three years ago in the lead-up to Sochi.
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Five of Team USA’s nine golds were won in the Olympic debut of ski halfpipe and slopestyle, as well as snowboard slopestyle. Although Sage Kotsenburg (Olympic gold in snowboard slopestyle) is now focused on goals outside of competition, primarily filming, and has yet to decide if he will continue competing, the other four gold medalists will aim to defend their Olympic titles.
|Maddie Bowman competes in the women's ski halfpipe final at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on Feb. 20, 2014 in Rosa Khutor, Russia.|
Over the weekend, halfpipe gold medalist Maddie Bowman finished second at the Toyota U.S. Grand Prix in Mammoth, the first Olympic qualifier. But she was the top American and is a favorite to make the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team. The 23-year-old freeskier also finished third at the X Games Aspen in January, missing a “five-peat” in superpipe (she won in 2013-16). Her main challenge for gold will likely come from French freeskier Marie Martinod, who won both the X Games and the Mammoth Grand Prix.
Since his breakout performance in slopestyle in Sochi, Joss Christensen — who led a Team USA sweep of the slopestyle medals in Sochi — has earned one X Games silver medal (in 2015) and has won the U.S. Grand Prix twice (2015 and ‘16). But in the past year, injuries have hampered the 25-year-old freeskier, most recently a knee injury that kept him from training over the summer. His goal was to be ready for the first Olympic qualifier in Mammoth. But it was canceled due to high winds. At the X Games in January, he finished sixth and was the second American.
David Wise, 26, was one of Team USA’s top freeskiers in the halfpipe through last year — even in a deep field of American men. But since he dislocated his shoulder in January 2016, he has struggled to make the podium. The father of two finished ninth at the U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain in December, then 11th at the X Games Aspen in January. He began Olympic qualification at Mammoth by finishing eighth behind a juggernaut of Americans who swept 1-4.
In slopestyle, Jamie Anderson continues to dominate. With consistency that is uncommon in her event, she is the most decorated rider in X Games slopestyle history, with 11 medals, four of them gold. Now 26, the free-spirited rider is a favorite to repeat her Olympic victory in 2018, having won the first Olympic qualifier, the U.S. Grand Prix in Mammoth in early February. But she might face stiffer competition than she did in Sochi, when she scored a 95.25, almost three points ahead of her nearest rival. At the 2017 X Games Aspen, 19-year-old Julia “Jules” Marino from Connecticut challenged her with more intricate moves on the rails and a cab double underflip (one of two women who is currently landing this air).
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.