Ever since the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, the United States has sent scores of athletes to compete in the Winter Games who lived in Utah and trained at the array of multimillion-dollar facilities constructed for the first domestic Olympics in a generation.
But never has the state seen a possibility like this.
Five native Utahns — Ted Ligety, Steven Holcomb, Noelle Pikus-Pace, Sarah Hendrickson and Chris Fogt — could realistically win gold medals at the 2014 Sochi Olympics that begin in Russia on Friday, a sporting achievement that would rank among the greatest the state has ever seen.
“The momentum we’re building heading into the Olympics is incredible,” Holcomb said.
The quintet is part of a group of some five dozen athletes who live or train at least part-time in Utah and are on the 230-member U.S. Olympic Team for Sochi. It’s the largest team the U.S. has ever sent to a winter Olympics, and it harbors medal hopes far beyond those of a few folks along the Wasatch Front.
But the prospect of five athletes born, raised and still living in a state of just 2.8 million people becoming Olympic champions at the same time is simply astounding — the entire U.S. team has never won more than 10 golds in a single winter Olympics — and far from just a mere pipe dream. Two of them already have won gold medals at previous Olympics, and four are one-time world champions and heavy favorites at least to stand on the podium in Sochi.
• Holcomb, for example, is a bobsled driver who won gold in the four-man race at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, ending a 62-year American drought in the event.
The Park City native swept the two-man and four-man events at the world championships two years ago, won nine of the 16 World Cup races this season — amazing, considering races are won and lost by hundredths of seconds — and is driving new high-tech sleds in each event, with Alpine native Fogt as one of his push athletes.
“We’re right where we want to be going into Sochi,” he said.
• Ligety, meanwhile, is a triple world champion Alpine skier who won the super-G, super-combined and giant slalom at the world championships last season, the first time in 45 years that any man had won three golds at worlds.
Ligety grew up in Park City before winning gold in the combined event at the 2006 Turin Olympics in Italy, and he is a four-time World Cup champion in the giant slalom, his specialty. He’s a huge 11/10 favorite to win that event, according to online oddsmaker Bovada, and will stand a chance in at least two others.
• Hendrickson is a ski jumper who also grew up in Park City, and who is part of a female ski jumping team competing in the Olympics for the first time.
She’s the reigning world champion and a former World Cup champion but hasn’t competed since blowing out her knee in a training crash in August. That clouds her chances a lot more than the other aspiring champions, but she is fully recovered and was cleared to jump on snow again a month before Sochi.
“Everything is going great so far,” she said.
• Finally, Pikus-Pace might be the most intriguing of all.
The Orem native who lives now in Eagle Mountain is a former world and World Cup champion in the head-first sliding sport of skeleton, who finished fourth in Vancouver by 0.1 seconds, four years after missing the Turin Olympics entirely because of a broken leg suffered in a freak accident in which she was hit by a runaway bobsled.
She retired at that point to raise a family, but returned after 2 ½ years to chase gold one last time — and only because her husband and two young children would travel with her to competitions all around Europe.
“It was incredible,” she said. “Having my family there was a dream come true.”
Pikus-Pace quickly returned to the top of her sport and split eight World Cup victories this season with her top rival, Great Britain’s Lizzy Yarnold. Better still? Last year, she won the only race contested so far on the track in Sochi.
Of course, the natives aren’t the only Utahns with medal hopes in Sochi.
Dozens of athletes in 17 events either have made Utah their long-term home or have lived here substantially in recent years as they trained for their shot at glory. Both the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and U.S. Speedskating teams are based in Utah, so almost all of the athletes in those sports at least cycle through the state periodically to train, if they don’t live here more regularly.
Speedskaters Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe figure to rank among the most decorated of the bunch in Sochi, having combined to win 14 medals in a dozen races on the World Cup circuit this season.
Freeskiers Maddie Bowman, Brita Sigourney and Angeli VanLaanen all could medal in the new ski halfpipe event, while teenage roommates Julia Krass and Maggie Voisin are serious threats in ski slopestyle, along with Devin Logan.
Defending Nordic combined gold medalist and five-time Olympian Bill Demong has a shot to reprise his historic performance in Vancouver, too, to say nothing of snowboarder Torah Bright, the defending halfpipe champion from Australia who lives in Salt Lake City and will compete in all three snowboard disciplines — halfpipe, slopestyle and snowboardcross.
“I am thrilled and cannot wait to seize my moments in Sochi,” she said.
In all, it could be spectacular couple of weeks in Sochi. Perhaps even more dazzling than Utah has ever seen.