While figure skating, speed skating and short track will dominate the scene in Vancouver during the 2010 Olympic Games, Alpine skiing will play king of the mountain up in Whistler. Consistently ranked as the top mountain resort in North America, Whistler Blackcomb provides a most fitting stage for athletes to showcase their supreme talents. Here's a look at the top story lines to follow in February.
Rise of Lindsey Vonn
Four years after she suffered a frightening crash during a training run at the 2006 Torino Games, Lindsey Vonn is poised to become one of the top stories in 2010. The accident, which team physician Dr. Bill Sterrett then described as a "sledgehammer hitting you in the pelvis without breaking anything," and her subsequent return to competition two days later, served as a small preview to Vonn's immense skill and resolve. In the years since, Vonn has become the most successful female skier in U.S. history, winning both the World Cup overall and downhill titles for the second consecutive year following the 2008-09 season. The versatile two-time world champion could contend for a medal in each of the five Olympic events she enters, though downhill and super-G are her strongest. Vonn will face a competitive international field that includes Sweden's Anja Paerson, Austria's Kathrin Zettel and Germany's Maria Riesch, one of Vonn's best friends. Riesch had her best season ever in 2009, winning the slalom world title and finishing second in the overall World Cup standings to Vonn. The pair is so close that Vonn celebrates Christmas in Germany with Riesch's family each year.
If Lindsey Vonn is to be considered the newest queen of the sport, then Norwegian Aksel Lund Svindal should be appointed its Viking king. The two-time overall World Cup winner will be 27 years old in Vancouver, arguably the prime of a skier's career, and could leave with multiple medals. In recent years, men's skiing has lacked a global icon in the mode of Austria's Hermann Maier or Italy's Alberto Tomba. Svindal has the skill (five world medals), physical presence (6-foot-5, 210 pounds), panache (regular English Tweeter) and requisite crash account (facial fractures, missing teeth), to carry Alpine's mainstream mantle into the future. Svindal could find his first Olympic medal on the very first day of competition in the men's downhill, an event he attended as an 11-year-old at the 1994 Lillehammer Games.
The best of us, the rest of the U.S.
In Torino, the task of winning Olympic medals for the U.S. fell to a pair of 21-year-olds after perceived contenders Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves spectacularly failed to win a medal in any of the events they entered. In their place, American newcomers Julia Mancuso and Ted Ligety brought home the first Olympic golds since Picabo Street in 1998 and Tommy Moe in 1994. Though the two-medal tally was far short of the team's stated goal of eight between the men and women, the result demonstrated the depth of the U.S. team. Now, with the emergence of Vonn, the return of Miller, and the presence of two defending Olympic champions, there exists another opportunity for a young American skier or two to land a surprise podium finish next February in Vancouver. 2005 junior world champion Tim Jitloff and Alice McKennis are among 13 Olympic first-timers on the U.S. Alpine team who could make a big splash.
Paerson calling curtains
As it stands now, Sweden's Anja Paerson has five career Olympic medals, more than any other active Alpine skier. Of the women, only Croatia's Janica Kostelic has more (six) in Olympic history. In her two Olympic appearances, the reigning slalom champion captured medals in four of the five disciplines (save super-G), a testament to her dynamic ability. Paerson, who's also a seven-time world champion, will be 28 in Vancouver and has stated that she plans to retire following the Games. If she manages to win two medals, a not unlikely scenario, the Swede will leave skiing as the sport's most decorated female ever.
There's no missing the Swiss
On the slopes at the 2006 Games, it was all Austria all the time. The Austrians won 14 Alpine medals, clearly dwarfing their neighboring Switzerland's lowly three. But it wasn't just in Torino where the Swiss struggled. At the four previous Olympic Winter Games (1992, 1994, 1998, 2002), Switzerland won fewer medals combined (10) than they did at the 1988 Calgary Games alone (11). Yet at the 2009 Worlds, neutral Switzerland proved it is once again dangerous, not only winning six medals, but also topping the overall medal count. The Swiss finally regained its footing with a combination of youth and veteran Alpine experience. Veteran Didier Cuche and rising star Carlo Janka, who each won two medals in Val d'Isere, could contend for medals in Vancouver. Cuche is a 35-year-old trained butcher and Olympic silver medalist who should contend for gold in giant slalom and the speed events in 2010, despite competing with a titanium plate used to stabilize a recently-broken thumb. Janka, nicknamed "Ice Man" since he's seemingly impervious to anxiety, won all three events at Beaver Creek in December, and should join his countryman near the top of the standings in those events. Unfortunately, the Swiss will be without proven winners Lara Gut, Dominique Gisin, Daniel Albrecht and Fraenzi Aufdenblatten.