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2014 Winter Olympians to watch for

Updated: 2014-02-06T08:18:10Z

By SARA SMITH and LISA GUTIERREZ

The Kansas City Star

Women’s figure skating

Who to watch: Ashley Wagner, USA

Why: The 22-year-old figure skater was named to the third, and final, spot on the U.S. team after a rather dismal performance at the U.S. national championships in early January. She fell down twice and finished fourth.

After U.S. skating officials picked her to go to Sochi over fellow skater Mirai Nagasu, who finished third at nationals, the bellowing grew so loud that Wagner swore off social media until after the games to avoid the hate. “Twitter is a blessing and a curse at the same time,” she said.

So Wagner skates into Sochi on somewhat thin ice, and she knows it. In a last-minute move, she dropped the Romeo and Juliet-themed long program she was so shaky with at the nationals. Now she’ll compete with a Samson and Delilah program she used in 2013, updated with new choreography and costume.

She told The Washington Post that she never felt comfortable skating in Juliet’s vulnerable skin. “I compete better when I have a strong mind-set rather than the tragic mind-set of Juliet,” she said. “I need to be more of a warhorse than anything else.

“It’s a character I’m very comfortable with. Delilah is this strong woman who knows what she wants, and she’ll go after it and get it any way that she needs to.”

She’ll need to be that strong to muscle her way onto the medal platform past the three skaters expected to be there: defending Olympic gold medalist Yuna Kim of South Korea, silver medalist Mao Asada of Japan and fellow American Gracie Gold, current U.S. champion.

Bloomberg Businessweek points out that the three blondes competing for the United States — including 15-year-old Polina Edmunds — have almost no name recognition outside skating circles.

We just hope that doesn’t mean they’ll be overshadowed by media stories about two other female skaters who became famous 20 years ago: Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding.

Men’s speed skating

Who to watch: Sjinkie Knegt, Netherlands

Why: He has a problem with his fingers, his middle ones specifically.

In January, at the European Short Track Speed Skating Championships in Dresden, Germany, Knegt was so angry that his team lost in the 500-meter relay final that he flipped off Russian opponent and triple Olympic-gold winner Victor Ahn — with both hands.

For being a bad sport, German officials disqualified him.

Did Knegt learn a lesson in sportsmanship? We’ll see when the two meet up again in Sochi.

Just hide the kids’ eyes.

Also watch for: Sven Kramer of the Netherlands is a top contender in several events, but we remember him for his handling of an NBC reporter at Vancouver’s 2010 Games. She asked for his name and sport after he had just won a gold, and he was incredulous: “Are you stupid?” Days later, he crossed the line first in the 10,000-meter event, only to be disqualified because he’d skated in the wrong lane on the direction of his coach.

Men’s downhill

Who to watch: Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe, Mexico

Why: When was the last time you saw a mariachi on skis? Yeah, didn’t think so.

You’ll get your chance now.

This 55-year-old athlete — the only one competing for Mexico — will ski in the men’s slalom wearing a mariachi-themed race suit. He’ll look like he’s tearing down the slopes in a bolero jacket, ruffled shirt, red tie and cummerbund.

That’s why people will talk about him. It certainly won’t be for his skiing. He has competed in five Olympics and never finished higher than 26th in any event.

NBC has already tagged the handsome skier “the most interesting Olympian in the world.”

He goes by Prince Hubertus because he’s descended from a German royal family that doesn’t exist anymore.

He grew up in Austria, lives in Austria and trains there, too. But he can compete for Mexico because he was born in Mexico City.

He has made a fashion statement on the slopes before. At the 2010 games in Vancouver, his custom race suit looked like the get-up of a Mexican desperado, bandolier, pistols and all.

Ice dancing

Who to watch: Meryl Davis and Charlie White, USA

Why: Because they’re either going to dominate or suffer the most dramatic upset of the games.

Davis and White won silver in Vancouver, but they’ve been dominating the sport ever since, winning 17 of 19 national and world events.

If you want to get all “USA! USA!” about it, don’t overlook rising stars Madison Chock and Evan Bates. We like them because Bates is 11 inches taller than Chock, who designs her own skating dresses.

Also watch for: The “Shib Sibs,” the brother-sister team of Maia and Alex Shibutani, who populate their own hilarious YouTube channel with footage shot during downtime on tour. ShibSibs Productions makes surreal music videos and montages featuring other Olympians, as well as some dance wars, sketch comedy and silent film. You kinda just have to see it.

The Shib Sibs train with Davis and White, and so do Team USA’s Canadian rivals, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the 2010 Vancouver gold medalists.

Curling

Who to watch: The Norwegians

Why: We love their pants.

These guys made their first big fashion splash on the ice at the 2010 winter games in Vancouver, where they won the silver medal in gaudy red, white and blue pants — the colors of the Norwegian flag.

In a sport where athletes traditionally wear black and white, they couldn’t have stirred up a bigger ruckus if they’d shown up naked.

The goofy bottoms — golf pants made by American sportswear company Loudmouth — took on a life of their own. Photos went viral. Norwegian King Harald V received a pair.

Norway’s women curlers dig the funky legwear, too, but the one Norwegian you won’t see wearing them? Curling coach Pal Trulsen, who told The Associated Press: “Put it like this, you’ll not see me wearing them. Except maybe at a bad-taste party or something.”

Also watch for: Great Britain’s all-Scottish women’s curling team, led by world champion skipper Eve Muirhead, who should be everyone’s cooler best friend.

She stomped the catwalk at Sean Connery’s charity runway show. She has a large, rabid fan base in Japan.

She plays the bagpipes, and her hair is usually dyed in a dramatic two-tone. She screams like a warrior on the ice.

She even has a lower-back tattoo of the Olympic rings. (We know this only because she did a racy, “Braveheart”-ey photo shoot for the Women of Curling calendar. There’s a Men of Curling one, too.)

Cross country skiing

Who to watch: Andrew Musgrave, Great Britain

Why: Because he’s showing Scandinavians who’s boss. Norway loves cross country like the Swedes love rotten fish, so Musgrave went there to train after not medaling in Vancouver.

At Norway’s sprint national championship in January, an event he couldn’t officially win, the 23-year-old smoked the Norsemen, pulling away from the pack and leaving commentators with their mouths hanging open. “It’s always good fun beating the Norwegians at their own sport,” he said.

“There was some fantastic talent in the race. This is brilliant,” British head coach Roy Young told the BBC. British people are serious when they use the world brilliant.

Musgrave, whose nickname is “Muzzy,” has an older sister, whose real name is Posy, who’s also competing in Nordic events for Great Britain.

Women’s slalom

Who to watch: Mikaela Shiffrin, USA

Why: The biggest star on the women’s ski team is just 18, loves pasta, works out to Daft Punk and has an enthusiastic Nana rooting for her.

Shiffrin is the reigning world champion — a title she earned last February at age 17 — and World Cup champion in slalom.

She’s expected to win a slalom medal in Sochi and could win one in the giant slalom, too.

The media love her, dubbing her “America’s next great skier” and “America’s skiing sweetheart.” She has more than 20,000 followers on Twitter (@MikaelaShiffrin), where she describes herself as “searching for the fastest way down the mountain.”

But her biggest fan might be her 92-year-old grandma, who lives in western Massachusetts and gets up before dawn to watch her World Cup races online.

Shiffrin told one reporter that skiing for world titles is nothing compared the pressure she feels “when my Nana tells me that my ski racing is keeping her alive.”

Also watch for: Tina Maze, Slovenia

The defending overall alpine World Cup champion is having a record year, and she doesn’t run from attention. She always does a handstand during podium ceremonies, and she has another career as a fashion model.

Last year, she released a single called “ My Way Is the Decision.” (Yes, the lyrics sound like an interview with George W. Bush.)

For us, her coolest moment came in January 2012, after Swiss skiers protested the possibly illegal aerodynamics of her long underwear. After coming in third at the World Cup super-giant slalom, she showed off her sports bra, which read “Not Your Business.”

“It’s just for fun. Girls like to have fun. It’s the song also,” she told reporters. “Girls just want to have fun. I like to have fun also. The first thing important for me is to ski fast, and I was skiing fast. Then I can joke also a little bit about myself, about everything around me.”

Got that?

Men’s ski jumping

Who to watch: Noriaki Kasai, Japan

Why: The man they used to call “Kamikaze Kasai” — because his nose peeked between his ski tips during flight — has been to the Olympics six times, a record for ski jumping, but has never won gold. Jan. 11, in a major upset, the 41-year-old became the oldest athlete to win a World Cup alpine skiing event, so Japan changed his nickname to “Legend Kasai.”

Sochi is no farewell tour in Kasai’s mind; he’s already looking forward to 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, saying, “I want to invite my family. I have never invited them once even though I have been to so many Olympics. I want to be married (by the time Pyeongchang comes around) and hopefully show my children.”

Women’s bobsled

Who to watch: Lolo Jones, USA

Why: The you-know-what hit the fan on Jan. 19, when the two-time Summer Olympian was named to the bobsled team heading to Sochi.

The most put out? Team veterans Katie Eberling and Emily Azevedo, both passed over. They charged in media interviews that Jones was chosen because she got famous competing in track and field in the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics. (She didn’t medal either time.)

“I should have been working harder on gaining Twitter followers than gaining muscle mass,” Azevedo told USA Today.

Speaking of which, Jones has more than 376,000 followers on Twitter, where she has changed her profile description to this: “The Official Twitter of Olympic Hurdler and Bobsledder Lolo Jones.”

Jones is expected to be the center of attention on a team that also features medal-contending pilot Elana Meyers, who knows a thing or two about changing sports. She played softball before winning a bronze in the 2010 Olympics for the two-woman bobsled.

The real winner in this? NBC, who we suspect will pay a lot of attention to Jones’ summer-to-winter crossover.

Snowboarding

Who to watch: Maxence Parrot, Canada

Why: He’s a pioneer in slopestyle boarding, which is a new event at Sochi, and he just won gold at the Winter X Games last month.

But more importantly, his name is Maxence. His nickname is “Garcon.” His official board stance style is listed as “Goofy.” And in 2013, he pulled off the sport’s first “backside triple cork” maneuver in competition. Afterward, he said, “So I was like, ‘All right, let’s go all in,’ and I stomped it the first try and that was it. I’m really stoked.”

We’re stoked too, dude.

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