Beijing Winter Olympics: The top storylines in women’s sports

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With the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics set to begin in 100 days – the Opening Ceremony is scheduled for Friday, February 4, 2022 – here are a few of the biggest storylines in women’s sports.

A Winter Olympic record: 45% of Olympians will be women

Over 45 percent of the athletes at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics will be women, a record for the Winter Olympic Games. At the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, women comprised 41 percent of competitors.

Why don’t the Winter Olympics have a 50-50 gender balance?

While the gender gap is closing, men still have more events on the Olympic Winter Games program (51), compared to 46 for women. Men also compete in nordic combined, the only Olympic sport – summer or winter – not open to women.

RELATED: Not every Olympic sport is open to women (or men)

Ice hockey also contributes to the gender balance discrepancy. The 2022 men’s Olympic hockey tournament will include 12 teams (300 players), while the women’s tournament will feature 10 teams (230 players) – though that’s an increase from the eight women’s hockey teams that competed in 2018.

Women’s hockey: USA-Canada rivalry remains fierce, with a twist

Since women’s hockey debuted on the Olympic program in 1998, all but one gold medal game has come down to the United States and Canada. That tradition appears likely to continue in Beijing.

The U.S. women will enter the 2022 Winter Olympics as the defending Olympic champions, while the Canadians won the most recent world title. Earlier this week, Canada defeated the U.S. 3-2 during the second stop of this fall’s “My Why Tour.”

That said: don’t count out Finland. The Finns have consistently challenged for bronze, and in 2019, they almost won the world title (losing only after a controversial call).

While the Americans and Canadians remain bitter rivals on the ice, players from both teams have been working closely together off the ice to create a sustainable women’s pro league that pays a living wage.

In May 2019, over 200 women’s hockey players (including every post-grad member of the current U.S. and Canadian national teams) announced that they would not play in any North American league, essentially boycotting the NWHL (since rebranded as the PHF).

While the NWHL/PHF is about to start its seventh season, the league has not included any current U.S. or Canadian national team players since 2019. Instead, players from both teams – as well as Noora Raty from Finland and Iya Gavrilova from Russia, banded together to form the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA).

That said, the PWHPA isn’t a league. Instead, it was created to provide athletes with training opportunities “until they have a professional league” that provides a liveable wage and insurance coverage.

“We have the same dream, so on the ice, it’s going to get feisty,” said Canadian legend Marie-Philip Poulin. “When the on-ice part is done, we know what we want to do: create a league for the next generation.”

“We know what we deserve. And we can’t settle for anything less than that because if we do, that means the next generation has to suffer as well,” said American Kendall Coyne Schofield.

Alpine skiing: Already among the greatest, Mikaela Shiffrin continues to cement legacy

Since claiming two medals at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Mikaela Shiffrin‘s resume has only gotten longer. In 2019, she won her third career overall World Cup title (the most prestigious honor in alpine skiing) and became the first skier to ever win four straight world titles in the same discipline.

Shiffrin has also experienced a tremendous loss. In February 2020, her father Jeff died following an accident at the family’s Colorado home. Shiffrin has been open about her grief since her father’s death, telling the Washington Post, “It takes all of your physical and mental and emotional energy in the beginning just to wake up and get out of bed. And then to get through half a day without completely breaking down.”

On the slopes, Shiffrin has continued to impress. She left the 2021 World Championships with a career-best haul: four medals in four events (gold in the combined, silver in the giant slalom, and bronze in the super-G and slalom).

This past weekend, the-26-year-old kicked off the 2021-22 World Cup season with a giant slalom win on the Rettenbach glacier in Soelden, Austria. The win marked Shiffrin’s 70th World Cup victory. Only two other skiers have previously achieved the 70-win feat: Ingemar Stenmark (86 wins) and Lindsey Vonn (82 wins).

At the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Shiffrin has the potential to contend in all five Olympic alpine events. While the Colorado native has long been known for her technical prowess in the slalom and giant slalom, she also plans to ski more speed events (downhill and super-G) this season.

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Figure skating: Russian ladies could sweep the Olympic podium

For Russia’s female figure skaters, making their country’s three-women Olympic roster will likely be more difficult than winning a medal at the Olympics. The Russian delegation swept the podium at the 2021 World Championships and could repeat the feat at the Winter Olympics. (Note: Just like at the Tokyo Olympics, Russian athletes in Beijing will represent the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC). This sanction was imposed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) as a result of a state-sponsored doping program.)

Earlier this fall, 17-year-old Russian skater Aleksandra Trusova became the first woman ever to land five quads in a program (a rare feat even in men’s figure skating). Over the weekend, she won Skate America with a watered down free skate that included only one quad.

Trusova’s top competitors – and countrywomen – include 15-year-old Kamila Valiyeva, 2021 world champion Anna Shcherbakova, 2020 European champion Aliona Kostornaya, and 15-year-old Maya Khromykh. All five train together in Moscow under the same coach: Eteri Tutberidze.

Tutberidze previously coached Yevgenia Medvedeva to two world championship titles and Alina Zagitova to the 2018 Olympic title.

Meanwhile, the top American woman is likely to be 16-year-old Alysa Liu. The California native won her first U.S. national title at age 13, making her the youngest champion in the event’s history.

Freeskiing: San Francisco native Eileen Gu expected to be one of China’s biggest stars

Freeskier Eileen Gu will enter the Winter Olympics as the reigning world champ in both slopestyle and halfpipe, and as one of the host nation China’s biggest medal hopes. The 18-year-old freeskier should contend in three events: slopestyle, big air, and halfpipe.

READ MORE: As her platform grows, Eileen Gu wants to inspire young girls to pursue freeskiing

Gu was born in San Francisco and initially competed for the United States, but announced in 2019 that she would be switching her national affiliation in order to represent China. Gu, who is fluent in Mandarin, grew up taking yearly trips to China with her mother Yan, who was born in Beijing.

Cross-country skiing: Already a pioneer, Jessie Diggins could make more Olympic history for Team USA

Cross-country skier Jessie Diggins has already made plenty of history for the United States. At the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, Diggins and teammate Kikkan Randall won the U.S. team’s first ever gold medal in cross-country skiing. Last season, the Minnesota native became the first American to win both the Tour de Ski and the overall World Cup title.

Diggins has also become more outspoken about some of the topics that matter most to her, from raising awareness about eating disorders to calling for action on climate change.

At this February’s Winter Olympics, Diggins could become the first American (of any gender) to win more than one Olympic medal in cross-country skiing.

Bobsled: No longer rivals, Elana Meyers Taylor and Kaillie Humphries hope to compete for the same team

With three Olympic medals each, pilots Elana Meyers Taylor and Kaillie Humphries are currently tied for most decorated woman in Olympic bobsled history.

Humphries previously represented Canada, but the two-time Olympic gold medalist departed the federation in 2019 after filing a complaint alleging verbal and mental harassment by Canada’s bobsled coach. While she has since gained the right to compete for the United States in most international bobsled competitions, she doesn’t currently have U.S. citizenship – which could prevent her from competing at the Winter Olympics in February.

“We’re doing everything we possibly can to make this happen as fast as we can, but it’s still an unknown at this point,” Humphries said at the Team USA media summit last week.

Even before Humphries moved to the United States, her rivalry with Meyers Taylor was always friendly. “If I can’t win I truly do hope she is the one to do so, and I know she feels the same way about me,” Humphries told the CBC in 2017.

Meyers Taylor has also dealt with some life changes since 2018. She and husband Nic Taylor welcomed son Nico in February 2020. Nico has Down syndrome and profound bilateral sensorineural hearing loss.

With both Elana and Nic trying to make the 2022 U.S. Olympic team (Nic is a bobsled brakeman), figuring out how to balance both of their training schedules – along with Nico’s therapies – has been a challenge, especially during the pandemic.

“It’s been quite an adventure the whole time,” Meyers Taylor said. “Figuring out how to train, how to breastfeed, how to do all these different things, how to travel around the world.”

Women’s bobsled will also debut a new Olympic event in 2022, though it is not the one Humphries or Meyers Taylor initially wanted. While both athletes advocated for the addition of a four-women event (to match the men’s program), a monobob event was added instead.

While Meyers Taylor and Humphries both appreciate that female pilots now have the chance to win two Olympic medals, they believe the talented pool of brakewomen behind them also deserve the same opportunity. “The work’s not done,” Meyers Taylor said.

Snowboarding: After two-year hiatus, Chloe Kim still dominates the halfpipe

Between 2019 and 2021, Olympic halfpipe gold medalist Chloe Kim took nearly two years off from competition. While away, the California native healed up a broken ankle and enrolled at Princeton for her freshman year.

Kim enjoyed the time away so much that she wasn’t initially sure she would ever compete again. Eventually, though, the 21-year-old found herself longing to return to the snow.

“I just had the same emotions I did when I was 14, excited to get out there, excited to try new things, and excited to push myself,” Kim told NBC Olympics research in September.

Since making her return, Kim has continued to impress, winning the halfpipe title at both the 2021 World Championships and 2021 X Games.

Earlier this year, Kim – along with Alex Morgan, Sue Bird, and Simone Manuel – helped launch TOGETHXR, a media and commerce company dedicated to women’s sports, lifestyle, and fashion.

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

The NBC Olympics research team contributed to this report.

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Beijing Winter Olympics: The top storylines in women’s sports originally appeared on NBCSports.com