With only a few weeks away from the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, we’ll be watching closely to see who will be the next Kristi Yamaguchi, Jimmy Shea or Dan Jansen.
Few athletes often make a big splash in the world arena, surprising us with their heartwarming background stories or inspiring victories. As you watch the Winter Games this year, you’ll want to keep a close eye on these 15 Olympic athletes who are expected to shine.
1. Shaun White, United States, Snowboarding.
Shaun White has won two Olympic gold medals for halfpipe snowboarding and is one of the most recognizable faces on Team USA. This year White will also be competing in slopestyle — a new event added to the schedule — and is the U.S.’s best hope to bring home a medal.
2. Ted Ligety, United States, Alpine Skiing.
The 29-year-old alpine ski racer and four-time World Cup champion won the gold in Turin during the 2006 Winter Games, but he failed to medal in Vancouver. Now, Ligety, a self-described "nomad," hopes to balance out his Olympic resume in Sochi. (Meanwhile, fans can catch his chiseled mug on Nyquil’s latest commercial.)
3. Sven Kramer, Netherlands, Speedskating.
The Dutch long track speed skater, a six-time European and six-time World All-round champion, won the gold in Vancouver—but not without a little controversy. When a reporter asked him to say his name for the camera, 27-year-old Kramer replied: "Are you stupid?" Of course, on the Olympic stage, sassy quips tend to go viral. Now, the world waits to see how he places (and what he says) in Sochi.
4. Tina Maze, Slovenia, Alpine Skiing.
In a wide-open field, Tina Maze is the female alpine skier to watch. At 30-years-old, Maze is at the peak of her career. In 2013 she set a world record with 24 podium finishes. When not skiing Maze is a model and singer.
5. Lolo Jones, United States, Bobsled.
The 31-year-old hurdler from Des Moines, Iowa, is on her way to landing a highly coveted title: Two-sport Olympian. Jones, who became a media darling after competing in Beijing and London (despite not medaling), took a break from track and field in 2012 to practice bobsledding — and fell in love with the winter competition. Now, with dreams of success in Sochi, she’s gunning for one of three spots on the Olympic team.
6. Shiva Keshavan, India, Luge.
Shiva Keshavan was introduced to luging during his early teen years when decorated Austrian athlete, Gunther Lemmerer, went to India as an ambassador. Since then Keshavan has dedicated his life to the adrenaline-filled sport. In 1998, he became the first Indian Olympian to compete in the luge, although the road to Sochi has been anything but smooth for Keshavan. This will be his fifth Olympic Games, but this time he will be competing as an independent athlete because his home country failed to finalized their constitution before the opening ceremony.
7. Gracie Gold, United States, Figure Skating.
America's newest sweetheart recently won her first national title, dethroning two-time champion Ashley Wagner. With her big jumps, improving artistry and marketable look (and name), expect to see lots more of the 18-year-old skating sensation.
8. Sara Takanashi, Japan, Ski Jumping.
At 17, Sara Takanashi is one of the top three ski jumpers in the world. Not only is she one of the youngest, but she’s the record holder of 15 World Cup victories ahead of Sarah Hendrickson’s 13 wins.
9. Brad Jacobs, Canada, Curling.
The Canadian curling skip is a member of the six-man team made up of his mostly relatives: two brothers and two cousins. They’ve won gold medals in curling in the last two Olympics and are expected to hang on to their titles.
10. Meryl Davis and Charlie White, United States, Figure Skating.
America's best hope for figure skating gold is in a discipline that the U.S. has never won in — ice dancing. Their stiffest competition will come from their training partners, 2010 Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.
11. Mikaela Shiffrin, United States, Alpine Skiing.
With Lindsey Vonn sidelined for the Games, the Women’s Alpine Skiing spotlight shifts to 18-year-old Shiffrin, who in 2012 became the youngest American to win an alpine World Cup event since 1969. After taking gold in slalom at the 2013 World Cup and winning three of her first four World Cup slalom races in 2014, the Colorado native has emerged as the favorite for the event in Sochi.
12. Alex Ovechkin, Russia, Ice Hockey.
After totaling seven gold medals before the fall of the Soviet Union, the top prize has been elusive for the once dominant Russian Men’s Hockey team, a trend they’re hoping to change on their home turf. Leading the charge is beloved countryman Ovechkin, a three-time Hart Trophy winner with the NHL’s Washington Capitals and arguably the greatest hockey player of his generation.
13. Ashley Wagner, United States, Figure Skating.
After her disappointing and shocking showing at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Ashley Wagner must prove that she earned her place in Sochi (she was controversially named to the team over U.S. bronze medalist Mirai Nagasu). How will the controversy affect the 22-year-old?
14. Kim Yuna, South Korea, Figure Skating.
Of South Korea’s 45 total Winter Games medals, just one hasn’t come from short track or speedskating: Kim’s ladies’ singles gold from the 2010 Vancouver Games. Appropriately, the expectations for a repeat performance are remarkably high for Kim in her native South Korea, where she has burgeoned into one of the country’s most recognizable faces in sport.
15. Armin Zoeggeler, Italy, Luge.
At 40, Armin Zoeggler is regarded as the greatest luger in history. This Italian cop will also seek to earn his sixth medal at a sixth Winter Olympics Games. Enough said.