Let the Games begin: What to watch for during the Pyeongchang Olympics

Rachel Blount, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in Olympics

This likely will be the final Olympics for Alpine skiing legend Lindsey Vonn, a 33-year-old Burnsville, Minn., native whose 81 World Cup victories are the second most in history. The 2010 Olympic downhill champion is hitting her stride at the right time, with a three-race winning streak that makes her the downhill favorite. Teammate Mikaela Shiffrin also will be a threat to win multiple races in Pyeongchang. Shiffrin, at age 18, became the youngest Olympic slalom champ in history at the 2014 Sochi Games. She's gunning for gold in slalom, giant slalom, super-G and Alpine combined. She also could compete in the new Alpine team event.

Two rulers of women's rink

This year marks the 20th anniversary of women's hockey at the Winter Olympics. It also marks 20 years since the first, and only, Olympic gold medal won by the United States. The Americans and Canadians remain the rulers of the rink, with one of them taking the gold at every Olympics and world championship in history. The U.S. recently has held the upper hand in one of the greatest rivalries in sports, defeating Canada for the title at the past four world championships. But the Olympic gold is the big prize, and a team stacked with Minnesotans hopes to end four Winter Games' worth of heartbreak.

More diversity at the start line

Winter Olympians typically are born and raised in Europe, North America and Asia. This year promises more diversity. Nigeria will send athletes for the first time, in women's bobsled and skeleton. Jamaica qualified in women's bobsled. Ghana will send women's skeleton athlete Akwasi Frimpong, and Pita Taufatofua of Tonga -- the shirtless flag-bearer who was a viral sensation at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics -- will compete in cross-country skiing. The U.S. team includes short-track speedskater Maame Biney, a native of Ghana who will become the second African-born athlete to compete for the Americans in the Winter Games.

Speedskaters seek comeback

After years of piling up Olympic medals, the U.S. speedskating team left the Sochi oval in tatters. The Americans failed to win a medal in the sport for the first time since 1984 -- coming up empty for only the third time in Olympic history -- and athletes openly complained about everything from their racing suits to their pre-Games preparation. They have a strong shot to rebound in Pyeongchang. Since Sochi, Brittany Bowe and Heather Bergsma have won world championships medals in the 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters, and Joey Mantia was the 2017 world champion in mass start, a new event.

Chen poised for skating gold?

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Nathan Chen made a huge impression -- and some history -- at the 2016 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Paul, Minn. He became the first American man to land four quadruple jumps in a long program. The reigning two-time U.S. champ now has five different quads in his arsenal, placing him among the Olympic favorites. It's a different story for the U.S. women. They have not won an Olympic medal since Sasha Cohen's silver in 2006, a drought that has dampened American interest in the sport. Bradie Tennell, Mirai Nagasu and Karen Chen will be hard-pressed to make the podium against a loaded Russian contingent.

New events and old favorites

Whether you're a fan of the old or the new, these Olympics will have something for you. Several events will make their Olympic debut, including snowboard big air, mixed doubles curling, an Alpine skiing team event, and two mass-start speedskating races. On the flip side, a group of ageless athletes will lend a sentimental touch to the Games. Japanese ski jumper Noriaki Kasai will compete in his eighth Winter Olympics -- a record -- at age 45. U.S. snowboard legend Shaun White, 30, is going for a third Olympic gold and fellow American halfpipe rider Kelly Clark, 34, could medal in her fifth Winter Games.

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