Other Sports

Team USA takes momentum and depth into Winter Games

Shani Davis, pictured here at the 2006 Turin Games, is one of the USA's multiple returning medalists. (Erich Schlegel / MCT)
Shani Davis, pictured here at the 2006 Turin Games, is one of the USA's multiple returning medalists. (Erich Schlegel / MCT)

Whether it's a matter of manners, caution or trying to evade the radar, Team USA isn't trumpeting a medal projection for the Vancouver Olympics, which commence in the Great White North on Friday.

"We expect to have the Canadians in a very strong position," said Mike English, the U.S. Olympic Committee chief of sports performance. "They certainly will enjoy home-field advantage."

For that matter, the USOC isn't entertaining questions about what it might take — or mean — to win a Winter Olympics medal count for the first time since the Lake Placid Games ... the first Lake Placid Games, in 1932.

Such an achievement might have particular resonance as the USOC tries to emerge from a time of dysfunction in its administration and after the disappointment of Chicago's rejected hopes of hosting the 2016 Summer Games.

During a recent conference call, English skirted those issues with an observation about the importance of being "great ambassadors" and performing cleanly and without controversy.

None of which means anything is being conceded to Canada and its "Own the Podium" proclamation, or to perennial Winter Games powers Germany, Norway and Russia.

"We haven't exactly been sitting back," English said.

Certainly, Team USA has the foundation to compete, boasting a team that returns 31 medalists and 87 athletes who've performed in at least one previous Olympics. And the last two Winter Games were vast improvements for the U.S. team, whose 19 gold medals in those Games were as many as the U.S. had earned in the four previous ones combined.

Following a 34-medal, third-place finish in Salt Lake City in 2002, the U.S. team was second overall with 25 medals at the 2006 Torino Games — the first time since the 1976 Innsbruck Games that the U.S. finished that high.

The momentum didn't stop there, either. U.S. athletes had a world-best 28 medals, including 13 golds, in winter sports world championship events in 2009.

What distinguishes this team's potential is an intriguing mix of returning medalists — particularly abundant in speedskating and snowboarding — and other Olympic veterans who've experienced breakthroughs of one sort or another in recent years.

That goes beyond Lindsey Vonn, whose World Cup dominance after inexperience and injury marred her first two Olympics earned her the cover of this week's Sports lllustrated and the accompanying headline, "America's Best Woman Skier Ever."

And it extends past an again-promising snowboard brigade, led by Shaun White, that has accounted for more than one-fourth of the U.S. medals (13) at the last two Winter Games.

Nor is it limited to speedskaters Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick, multiple medalists in Torino, or short track's Apolo Ohno, whose next medal will tie him with Bonnie Blair for the most (six) by a U.S. Winter Olympian.

While those disciplines still may provide the bulk of the trinkets, the U.S. strength appears to be in its breadth — extending so wide that there is evidence to suggest unprecedented medal possibilities in women's luge and men's Nordic combined and biathlon.

Though each would be a first at an Olympics, each already has been shown to be realistic with Erin Hamlin's 2009 luge world championship ending a 99-race German gold run, Billy Demong's 2009 world title in the Nordic combined 10-kilometer large hill and Tim Burke becoming the first American ever to take the biathlon World Cup standings lead.

And reigning figure skating world champion Evan Lysacek, who finished fourth in Torino, is capable of notching just the second U.S. men's figure skating medal since 1992.

Those areas should provide counterbalances for the uncharacteristically unpromising women's figure skating scenario, in which first-time Olympians Rachael Flatt and Mirai Nagasu will try to become the first U.S. women's skaters on a world podium since 2006.

Although Canada had no gold medals to show in either of its two previous Olympic hostings, Montreal in 1976 and Calgary in 1988, the Canadians will be strong contenders to win the men's and women's versions of the sports they consider their own — hockey and curling.

Then again, the burden of expectations could outweigh the home cooking, particularly in a balanced hockey theater that has had six different countries play in the gold medal game since NHL players were ushered in in 1998.

"I think the pressure on Canada is relentless right now," said Dave Ogrean, USA Hockey's executive director, noting that hockey will be "front and center ... like it hasn't been in the Olympics in a long, long while, if ever."

Meanwhile, U.S. athletes and governing bodies are hoping that the close proximity will provide a boost with none of the accompanying distress.

"We do feel that," said Bob Crowley, executive director of U.S. Speedskating, adding, "We've had the focus of trying to make Vancouver our home away from home."

Among the reasons Crowley and others believe it can have that feel are everything from comfort with the language and cuisine to the minimal time zone adjustments to the accessibility of travel for family and friends of U.S. competitors."We expect a friendly crowd up there," he said.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune

  Comments