Sochi, Russia • Five athletes who grew up in Utah have strong chances to bring home gold from the Sochi Olympics. But who is their top competition?
Ted Ligety vs. Marcel Hirscher (men’s Alpine skiing)
He’s a triple world champion, so Ligety has several chances to medal. But his best one comes in his specialty, the giant slalom. And that means Austria’s Marcel Hirscher — and possibly France’s Alexis Pinturault — stand most in the way. Hirscher is the two-time defending overall World Cup champion and the only man to beat Ligety for the GS title in the last four years, while Pinturault is a two-time junior world champion who appears to be the future of giant slalom. Hirscher is the only man who has been on the podium after all six races so far this season. Ligety missed out twice, though he has won three times to Hirscher’s two.
Sarah Hendrickson vs. Sara Takanashi (women’s ski jumping)
The reigning world champion, Hendrickson been out all season because of a knee injury, so she has ceded the role of favorite to Sara Takanashi, the 17-year-old from Japan who has won 10 of the 13 competitions on the World Cup circuit this season. Takanashi has expressed her admiration for Hendrickson, to whom she lost at the world championships last season despite winning the overall World Cup title. Takanashi has clinched the overall title again this year, and has won 19 World Cups in the three seasons that women’s ski jumping has existed at the World Cup level. Hendrickson has won 13, despite not competing at all in almost a year.
Steven Holcomb & Chris Fogt vs. Everybody (men’s bobsled)
The defending Olympic champion in four-man bobsled (with Fogt on the push team), Holcomb also will drive in the two-man race, but he doesn’t have a particular nemesis in either one. He won nine of the 16 races across both disciplines on the World Cup tour this season, and three different drivers won the seven he did not. In two-man, Switzerland’s Beat Hefti appears the greatest threat. In four-man, it could be any of three Germans — Maximilian Arndt, Francesco Friedrich and Thomas Florschuetz, with two wins and 10 podium finishes between them — Russia’s Alexandr Zubkov or Latvia’s Oskars Melbardis, who won two of the last three races and the one in Sochi last year.
Noelle Pikus-Pace vs. Lizzy Yarnold (women’s skeleton)
A former world champion, Pikus-Pace has won four of the eight World Cup races this season. Great Britain’s Lizzy Yarnold has won the other four, and each slider has been on the podium three other times. Plus, the only time Pikus-Pace failed to finish in the top three was when Yarnold’s British team complained about a piece of tape on the handle of Pikus-Pace’s sled that got her disqualified after an apparent victory and ultimately cost her the overall World Cup title. Yarnold was third at the 2012 world championships in which Pikus-Pace did not compete, while Pikus-Pace won the only race contested so far on the Sochi track almost a year ago.
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