WE WILL make some introductions here, but in a way, you know these U.S. Olympians. Maybe you haven't met them personally, and with the exception of snowboarder Shaun White, who will try to win his third straight gold in the halfpipe in Sochi, or perhaps skier Bode Miller, back for his fifth Games, you probably wouldn't recognize most of them if they passed you on the street. But you know them because no matter where you live, whether there is snow outside your window right now or sand between your toes, they come from among you.
These Olympians didn't all grow up in the shadow of snowcapped mountains or spend their childhoods playing hockey on frozen ponds. Speedskater Eddy Alvarez, a Miami native, in-line skated through the streets of South Beach for years before he discovered the ice. Women's hockey forward Lyndsey Fry's journey to Sochi began in the stick-and-puck hotbed of Chandler, Ariz. Nick Goepper, who could become a breakout star in slopestyle skiing, one of 12 events on the Winter Games schedule for the first time (page 74), grew up skiing on a 300-foot "mountain" and practicing on a homemade snow park in his backyard in Lawrenceburg, Ind., not exactly a Winter Games mecca.
There was a time when the Winter Olympics were mostly a regional phenomenon in the U.S., with the overwhelming majority of the roster coming from cold-weather climates. But the USOC's efforts to tap into the national population have paid off with teams that draw talent from a larger pool—sometimes literally, as in the case of Brita Sigourney, a former UC Davis water polo player from Carmel, Calif., who will compete in the skiing halfpipe.
The influx of talent has helped transform the U.S. from a Winter Olympic also-ran into a power. At the 1988 Games in Calgary the U.S. team won just six medals, prompting an overhaul of financing and training that led to a 34-medal jackpot in 2002 in Salt Lake City. There is no better recruiting tool than winning, so it's not surprising that future Olympic-caliber athletes were attracted by seeing the U.S. improvement. Four years ago in Vancouver, Team USA turned in its best performance in history, with 37 medals, the most ever won by any country at a single Winter Games.
Topping the medal count in Sochi won't be easy, although the U.S. should again be among the most decorated countries. Team USA won't have the backyard boost it received when competing in Salt Lake and Vancouver; it's worth noting that the one dip for the U.S. came at the 2006 Games in Turin, where the team went home with 25 medals. The loss of Lindsey Vonn, the most successful female skier in U.S. history, to a knee injury won't help.
But Team USA still has abundant talent. The Olympic effort has drawn in athletes not just from unlikely regions but also from other disciplines. Hurdler Lolo Jones and sprinter Lauryn Williams, who have five Summer Olympic appearances between them, are now part of the deepest U.S. women's bobsled team ever. Brittany Bowe, from Ocala, Fla., was a point guard at Florida Atlantic before she gave up full-court ballhandling for long-track speedskating. Though she had grown up as an accomplished in-line skater, Bowe had planned to play basketball overseas after graduating from FAU. But she had a change of heart when she watched speedskating in the 2010 Games and decided to move to Salt Lake City to train for a shot at Sochi.
The Winter Games seem accessible to athletes even if they haven't spent a lifetime practicing their event—and those athletes in turn seem more accessible to us. You know these Olympians because despite the sponsorships and stipends that go to elite athletes now, there is still an Everyman/Everywoman quality to them. They don't just represent us, they are us. When he's not training, ski cross medal favorite John Teller works as an auto mechanic at his dad's Chevron station in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. Russ Armstrong of the men's curling team owns a bowling center in Highwood, Ill., and his teammate Jeff Isaacson is a middle-school science teacher in Gilbert, Minn. These are not the pampered pros you are used to watching.
DO YOU know anyone who has refused to give in to pain and injury? Then you know moguls skier Hannah Kearney, the Vancouver gold medalist. A training crash two years ago left her with a lacerated liver, two broken ribs and a punctured lung, but she made it back to win the World Cup title last year and is a favorite in Sochi. Nordic combined veteran Todd Lodwick, 37, probably won't win a medal at these Games to go with his 2010 silver, but just strapping on his skis would be accomplishment enough. Lodwick separated his left shoulder when he crashed in a competition in France on Jan. 10 but said last week that he would be ready for Sochi, where he would become the U.S.'s first six-time Winter Olympian.
Do you know people who sacrifice and put others ahead of themselves? Then you know biathlete Tracy Barnes, who earned the fifth berth on the five-woman team, just ahead of her twin sister, Lanny, who might well have made the team if she had not missed three of the last four qualifying races due to illness. But it's Lanny who will compete in Sochi, because Tracy declined her roster spot so it would be given to the biathlete with the next highest number of points: her twin.
"She is having a stellar year, and I for one want to see how far she can take it ... what heights she can climb to," Tracy wrote on the sisters' website, twinbiathletes.com. "So in the honor of friendship, cooperation and sacrifice, I declined my spot.... Please help me in cheering her on in Sochi." Only one twin will compete, but they will both hear cheers.
It is one thing to willingly give up an Olympic spot. It's quite another to have one abruptly taken away, which is what happened to long-track speedskater Kelly Gunther four years ago. In 2010 she finished fourth in the 1,000 meters at the U.S. championships, apparently earning the final spot in the event for the U.S. team. A tweet from U.S. Speedskating proudly proclaimed, "Welcome to the Olympics, Kelly." But officials subsequently awarded a reskate to Rebekah Bradford, who had crashed out of her heat. Moments later Bradford posted a faster time, bumping Gunther from the squad. This year—having also come back from a horrific March 2010 tumble in which her right blade severely slashed her left ankle—Gunther, 26, will get the chance she narrowly missed four years ago when she skates the 1,000 in Sochi.
Do you know anyone who needed financial help after a sudden drop in the amount of money coming in? Then you know Emily Scott, who saw U.S. Speedskating cut her monthly training stipend to $600 from $1,950 when her performance began to slip last year. That caused a serious hardship for her father, Craig, who has raised Emily, 24, and her sister since Emily was in third grade. (Her mother, Carol, is serving a 12-year prison term on a drug conviction.) The family applied for food stamps after the stipend was reduced, but the Scotts' story went public and donors began sending in cash. About 700 people donated nearly $50,000, helping to make it possible for Emily to continue training and qualify for all three individual short-track races in Sochi.
There are also some familiar faces and story lines. Maybe you know the U.S. men's hockey team—with NHL stars like Ryan Callahan, Patrick Kane, Ryan Miller and Zach Parise—a bit better than most of the other winter athletes. The Americans lost the gold medal game to Canada in Vancouver in 2010 and should be in the mix for a medal again, although foreign ice has not historically been kind to Team USA. Americans haven't won an Olympic men's hockey medal outside North America since 1972.
As always with the Winter Games, if you don't know the U.S. figure skaters yet, you soon will, especially with the drama that accompanied the selection of the three-person women's team. Under normal circumstances the top three finishers at January's U.S. championships in Boston, Gracie Gold, Polina Edmonds and Mirai Nagasu, would have been named to the team. But the U.S. Figure Skating selection committee chose to bypass Nagasu and give the third spot to fourth-place finisher Ashley Wagner, who fell twice in an uncharacteristically poor performance in Boston but last year placed fifth at the world championships, higher than any other American woman. How Wagner reacts to the pressure of justifying her reprieve could be one of the main stories of the competition.
Then there is White, the Olympian you surely do know, not just from his previous gold medal performances in the halfpipe but also from the endorsements and TV appearances that resulted from them. White has a chance to leave Sochi with more halfpipe hardware and perhaps a medal in the new slopestyle snowboarding event that he once dominated in the X Games.
Slopestyle is one of three events that will open the Games on Feb. 6, and you soon will be familiar with it and its stars, just as the rest of Team USA is about to become a collection of much more familiar faces. Before the month is out, and the 230 American athletes in Sochi have faced the challenges of a road Olympics more than 5,000 miles away, you will feel as if you've known them forever.
A 38-degree jumping ramp? Van, 29, has faced steeper challenges, such as the IOC's long refusal to add her event to the Olympics. But after a push led by Van, women jumpers will soar for the first time, in Sochi. Before the 2010 Games, Van, who in '09 became the first female world champion, held the hill record (men and women) at the Vancouver venue; she would have been the gold favorite. In Sochi, the pioneer finally gets her shot.
JESSIE DIGGINS & KIKKAN RANDALL
The U.S. has never won cross-country gold. No American woman has even won a medal. That could change thanks to individual star Randall (bottom), 31, and Diggins, 22, who paired up with her to win the world team sprint title last year.
Hendrickson, 19, is both a medal favorite and an underdog. She's the world champ, but last summer she shredded her right knee while training. "I laid at the bottom of the hill and thought everything was over," she says. After surgery and intense rehab, she returned to the hill in mid-January and is now ready for Sochi—an Olympian feat.
MERYL DAVIS & CHARLIE WHITE
A likely highlight in Sochi will be the showdown between these reigning world champions and 2010 Olympic silver medalists (SI, Jan. 27) and their rivals, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, who won gold in Vancouver. All of them train under the same coach at the same Michigan rink. Davis, 27, and White, 26, will also try to lead the U.S. to a medal in the new team event.
TORIN YATER-WALLACE, DAVID WISE, MADDIE BOWMAN, NICK GOEPPER
Team USA is so loaded with talent in the new events of halfpipe and slopestyle skiing that world slopestyle champ Tom Wallisch (far right) didn't even make the team. Yater-Wallace (far left), already a six-time Winter X Games medalist at age 18, suffered two broken ribs and a collapsed lung in a December crash but will battle world champion Wise (second from left), a married 23-year-old with a two-year-old daughter, in the halfpipe. Bowman (upside down), 20, and Goepper, 19, could make history as the first winners in women's halfpipe and men's slopestyle.
MONIQUE & JOCELYNE LAMOUREUX
One of seven sets of siblings on Team USA, the North Dakota twins eschew family rivalry for U.S.--Canada rivalry. They were in the thick of a brawl between the teams in October and hope in Sochi to avenge the 2010 gold-medal-game loss, in which they played. "It's always going to be heated [against Canada]," said Jocelyne (right), after another melee, in December.
LOLO JONES & ELANA MEYERS
Hold on for a wild ride. Amid a debate over whether two-time Olympic hurdler Jones (left), 31, was chosen for her abilities or her media appeal—with 30 pounds of added muscle, she has plenty of both—Meyers, 29, has quietly moved from 2010 bronze-medal brakewoman to star driver. Will the two pair up? Driver-pusher pairings for U.S. sleds haven't been announced.
MAIA AND ALEX SHIBUTANI
The brother and sister call themselves the Shib Sibs, and they already have a sizable Internet following thanks to the two dozen funny videos (a cooking-show spoof, a "Call Me Maybe" singalong) they've put up on YouTube. A different level of fame awaits if Alex, 22, and Maia, 19, can match their 2011 world bronze medal.
PARALYMPIC SLED HOCKEY
When Cash was three, bone cancer forced the amputation of his right lower leg. Cash played roller hockey on a prosthetic as a kid, then took up sled hockey in 2005. Now 24, he was the goalie on the U.S.'s 2010 Paralympic gold medal team. If Team USA repeats, it will be in front of a much larger audience: For the first time NBC will show extensive live coverage of the Paralympics, from March 7 through 16.
Photographs by SIMON BRUTY/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED