International athletes to watch at this year’s Winter Games

International athletes to watch at this year’s Winter Games

Taking a look at Team USA’s global competition for 2022

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Finding noteworthy athletes from the rest of the world might still be easier than cherry picking from the America tree, but it’s harder to decide which multi-medalist athlete or teenage phenom to leave off the list. I tried to get a nice mix of both, but there are quite a few times when I simply had to mention multiple names because storylines and rivalries are what make the Olympics so compelling.

We’ve got athletes from the usual suspects like Norway, the Netherlands, and Canada, but there’s also a much-anticipated Olympic debut from an Estonian, a three-way battle for men’s snowboard halfpipe dominance, and an “It’s anyone’s guess” with men’s alpine skiing. I’m not even going to try to sum up whatever is happening with the Russian figure skaters, so let’s start the show.

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Kelly Sildaru

Kelly Sildaru

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Calling Kelly Sildaru of Estonia a freestyle skiing prodigy is an understatement. It’s like calling LeBron James a prodigy. Yes, he also was a prodigy, but — and writing this gives me no pleasure — he’s closer to the “Chosen One” than he is a prodigy. Sildaru is the chosen one of freestyle skiing.

At only 19 years old, she already has 10 X Games medals, six of them gold, making her the most decorated teenager in the history of the event, according to The Aspen Times. Two of the golds are in halfpipe and the other four are in slopestyle, her best discipline.

She wasn’t at the 2018 Games because she was only 15 and busy winning gold at the Youth Winter Olympics. Poised to have the kind of breakout, household-name making debut that Chloe Kim had in her first Olympics, if Sildaru skis was to the best of her ability, it could be even more breakout-ier. She’s already one of her country’s favorite daughters, a big fish in a small pond of about 1.3 million Estonians, but if she were to win two golds for a country with four gold medals in its entire Winter Olympics history, she’ll be tied for most individual golds in Estonia’s Olympic history — summer and winter — and well on her way to adding “Estonia’s most decorated Olympian” to her list of accolades.

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Scotty James, Yuto Totsuka, and Ayumu Hirano

Scotty James, Yuto Totsuka, and Ayumu Hirano

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This trio has been competing for men’s snowboarding halfpipe supremacy since Shaun White decided he only competes in Olympics. Since 2017, one of those three has won gold every year at X Games Aspen. Australian Scotty James has four of those golds (2017, ’19, ’20, ’22), while Japanese riders Ayumu Hirano (2018) and Yuto Totsuka (2021) split the other two.

If you’re saying James and his signature boxing gloves deserve his own slide, they probably do, but Totsuka and Hirano are on here because Totsuka took the World Championships last year, which is arguably more important and tougher to win than the X Games, and Hirano just landed the first triple cork in competition, which is one of those tricks that sends announcers into a frenzy while they count the rotations in slow-mo.

Hirano actually bested James at the 2018 Games, winning silver to James’ bronze, but neither could beat out White for gold. Now 20 years old, Totsuka is hoping for a better showing than he had at age 16 in PyeongChang, finishing 11th and being medically evacuated after a hard fall. All three are now more than capable of medaling, and I hope they’re all on the podium while White is forced to give his exit interview without any hardware/fanfare (forgive me, America and NBC).

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Suzanne Schulting

Suzanne Schulting

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The Dutch are an interesting lot. They don’t showcase the colors of their flag, instead sporting orange because it’s the color of the royal family. They’re good at soccer and cycling, which is normal for a European country, but take significant pride in speed skating, too. I’d Google “Why do the Dutch wear wooden shoes?” next, but this isn’t a book report on the Netherlands. It’s a segment about Suzanne Schulting, the queen of short track speed skating.

She became the second youngest Dutch Winter Olympic champion in 2018, winning gold in short track speed skating at age 20 and earning Dutch Sportswoman of the Year honors the same year. Since then, she’s finished first overall in every European Championships and World Championships that haven’t been canceled due to COVID.

With South Korea, a similarly speed skating obsessed and accomplished country, missing star Shim Suk-hee and the team embroiled in turmoil and scandal, this is another… golden opportunity for Schulting and her fellow Dutchwomen, including fellow skating sensation 22-year-old Jutta Leerdam.

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Mark McMorris

Mark McMorris

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The non-stated reason I combined the men’s snowboard halfpipe contenders is I didn’t want half of the list to be made up of snowboarders. I love snowboarding so much that it’s hard to temper my enthusiasm for the sport and not blather away about riders, tricks, powder stashes, gear, gondolas, safety meetings… wait I’m blathering again.

Mark McMorris, an OG snowboarder out of Canada, is looking for his first Olympic gold after he came up bronze at the past two Olympics. At 32, he’s done everything else he’s set out to, including surpassing White’s record for most career Winter X Games medals this year when he took first in men’s slopestyle for a record sixth time in Aspen.

While slopestyle — hitting a run of features from rails to massive jumps — doesn’t attract the draw or carry the weight that halfpipe does, it’s my favorite snowboarding discipline because of the aesthetic diversity of tricks. (My favorite comp is anything in the backcountry where riders hit natural jumps and create their own lines, but that’s not an Olympic event, and I’m blathering again so I’ll stop.)

Watch out for McMorris, who, like most Canadians, is a nice guy and deserves a career chef’s kiss.

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Kamila Valieva

Kamila Valieva

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The Russian machine that produces medal-winning athletes as if they were manufactured in a lab has done it again with figure skater Kamila Valieva. The 15-year-old wunderkind (shout out Ted Lasso, I hate you Nate) is the favorite to take home gold in Beijing. I’d like to point out that they’re still technically called the Russian Olympic Committee, so if you’re looking to root against the Russians like I did over the summer, that’s the name they’ll be competing under.

The ROC was forced to use that moniker after Russia got in trouble for doping, and I’m still confused as to how they’re able to send athletes to the Games, but steroids don’t improve coordination, so I’m willing to give Valieva a pass. Russia is able to produce world-renowned ballerinas via Black Widow-ian academies, and figure skaters are a close enough approximation (to ballerinas, not assassins) to get the benefit of the doubt.

Not getting the benefit of the doubt, however, is Russia’s claim that their teenage ice-skating stars are exempt from vaccination and quarantine. Positive tests have already forced the ROC to withdraw some athletes, and more are in jeopardy of missing the games. It’s a stroke of irony that not being injected with a foreign substance could keep a few of them from participating.

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Johannes Høsflot Klæbo and Alexander Bolshunov

Johannes Høsflot Klæbo and Alexander Bolshunov

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Cross-country skiing is a sport that absolutely could be affected by doping, but I’m not here to accuse anyone of cheating — I just want to keep mentioning it because I grew up with Russia as the go-to bad guys, and life’s simpler when I have someone to root against, including the ROC’s Alexander Bolshunov.

His biggest competition is Norway’s Johannes Høsflot Klæbo. Both 25 and dueling each other in Olympic and non-Olympic events, Bolshunov has recently gained the upper hand — winning the Tour de Ski and the overall Word Cup title in 2020 and ’21 — since Klæbo took home three golds in PyeongChang and Bolshunov was left with three silvers and a bronze.

I personally am only interested in cross-country skiing if the competitors are carrying guns and chasing Roger Moore, but a lot of people get off on endurance sports, so the Klæbo-Bolshunov rivalry should get them amped.

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Men’s alpine skiing

Men’s alpine skiing

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The void left in men’s alpine skiing when Austria’s Marcel Hischer retired a couple of year’s ago has yet to be filled. If there was a clear cut successor to Hirscher, who is the second most decorated men’s alpine skier ever, he’d be heading up this portion. However, there’s not. France’s Alexis Pinturault won the World Cup last season, but at 30 years old, sitting ninth in this year’s WC standings, and with only an Olympic silver and two bronzes to his name, he’s nowhere close to worthy of his own featurette in this maker-and-breaker-of-careers slideshow.

From what I gather, there are quite a few names who could grab a gold, most of them from European countries adept at producing world class skiers — your Norways, Austrias, and Switzerlands of the world. An Italian may even sneak in there, I don’t know.

Even with a wide-open field, the American men’s chances of medaling aren’t great, which is why I didn’t write about any of them in my U.S. athletes to watch piece. You can still read that here, but if you were wondering “What about American men’s skiers?” there’s your answer.

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