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Road to Sochi/Kelly Clark

(News Senior Sports Columnist Jerry Sullivan is profiling U.S. athletes leading up to the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, which begin Feb. 7)

 

Clark, 30, will be competing in her fourth Olympics in the snowboard halfpipe and is a favorite to win gold. She has the most snowboard wins of anyone in history, male or female. Yes, even more than Shaun White. Clark was 67 wins and 109 podiums overall medals in 128 career events.

At age 18, Clark won gold in the halfpipe at Salt Lake City in 2002. She was fourth in Torino four years later, then won bronze in 2010 in Vancouver. After three Olympics, she might have decided to hang up the board. Instead, she got better. Clark won 16 straight events from 2011-12, and she became the first woman to land a frontside 1080 (three revolutions in the air) in 2011.

Clark had first done the frontside 1080 when she was 10 years old. A native of Newport, R.I., she grew up in Vermont. She and her friends would build jumps on the nearby slopes and do tricks until the ski patrol instructed them to quit.

She embraces her role as a women's snowboard pioneer, a model for young girls to follow. She says she wants to take snowboarding to "new places." Clark has emphasized fitness as the increasing rigors of the sport demanded it. She also became a Christian midway through her career. Snowboard insiders will not be surprised if she comes back for a fifth Games in South Korea in 2018.

"I never dreamed that I'd have an opportunity to make my fourth Olympic team and I'd still be pursuing this 12 years after Salt Lake," Clark told USA Today. "But for me, I love the sport more than ever."

 

 

 

 

 

She won her fourth straight Winter X Games gold last month. She was 16 consecutive competitions in a row from 2011-12.

 

 

 

Road to Sochi/Patrick Kane

(News Senior Sports Columnist Jerry Sullivan is profiling U.S. athletes leading up to the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, which begin Feb. 7)

 

Kane, the pride of South Buffalo,  won two Stanley Cups before the age of 25. He scored the game-winning goal for Chicago in the 2010 Cup finals. Kane, the top overall pick in the 2007 entry draft, won the Conn Smythe last year as the most valuable player in the Cup finals. Four years ago, he won a silver medal with the U.S. team in Vancouver.

Now he's back for another shot at gold in Russia, a more complete and dangerous player than he was four years ago. Kane is renowned for his speed, lightning quick hands and stickhandling. He has also matured as a person and player. During last season's lockout, he played in Switzerland and rededicated himself to his sport. Kane, who turned 25 in November, is better defensively, a more patient and creative offensive player. He is also expected to be more of a leader for the American squad.

Kane is currently fourth in the NHL in scoring with 60 points (25 goals, 35 assists), which puts him on pace to equal his career high of 88 points, set in 2009-10. He had three goals and two assists for the U.S. during its stirring run to the Olympic final in 2010. He'll be reunited with 12 of his American teammates from Vancouver, including Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller.

Ed Olczyk, an NBC analyst who played and coached in the NHL, called Kane "the best American player in the game right now." If Kane performs to that level in Sochi and wins gold, it might be time to anoint him as the greatest athlete ever to come out of the Buffalo area.

 

Live chat at 1 p.m.: Sully on Sports

Road to Sochi/Mikaela Shiffrin

(News Senior Sports Columnist Jerry Sullivan is profiling U.S. athletes leading up to the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, which begin Feb. 7)

 

The Olympics lost a bit of its glamor early this month when four-time world champ Lindsey Vonn withdrew due to of a knee injury. So much for seeing Tiger Woods on the slopes, rooting on his girlfriend. But Shiffrin, an 18-year-old ski prodigy, is a clear favorite for gold in slalom and seems ready to assume the crown as the new queen of U.S. Alpine racing. 

Shiffrin, a native of Vail., Colo., is the reigning world champion in women's slalom. In the last year, she has won six World Cup slalom races. She was the second-youngest American to win an Alpine event in the World Cup and is the first U.S. skier to win three or more slaloms in a Cup season twice. She's been improving rapidly in giant slalom, and is a solid contender for a medal in that event.

At 5-7, 145 pounds, Shiffrin isn't a physical specimen. She isn't considered a particularly aggressive or dynamic skier. All she does is go faster than anyone else. People call her the Mozart of ski racing. She won her first international event at 15, shortly after becoming eligible. She won her first U.S. slalom title a few weeks after her 16th birthday.

''It's about the purity and serenity of her form,'' U.S. star Ted Ligety told the New York Times. ''At top speed on an icy, steep racecourse, the hardest thing in the world is making it look effortless. Mikaela does that.''

 

 

 

 

Road to Sochi/Bode Miller

(News Senior Sports Columnist Jerry Sullivan is profiling U.S. athletes leading up to the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, which begin Feb. 7)

 

Miller, 36, will be competing in his fifth Olympics and looking to add to his legend as the most successful male alpine skiier in U.S. history. He's a two-time overall World Cup champion with 33 career wins. He is one of five men to win a World Cup event in all five disciplines. Miller has won five Olympic medals, including one of each color in the 2010 Games in Vancouver.

Skeptics throught Miller might be done as a major international competitor when he missed 20 months, including all of the 2013 season, while recovering from micro-fracture surgery on his left knee. But he came back with renewed confidence this season. He lost 20 pounds and none of his signature swagger, declaring "I'm going to kick ass."

Miller appears to be peaking just in time for Sochi, where he intends to compete in several events. Last Sunday, he finished second in the Super-G at Kitzbuehel, Austria. Some observers believe he is rounding into shape to be a serious medal contender in Russia.

The New Hampshire native is rarely lacking for drama. After struggling at the '06 Olympics, he said he had partied at "an Olympic level". A noted non-conformist, he has feuded with the national and international ski associations. He once suggested that "some performance-enhancing drug" should be legal. But he's been one of the most relentless competitors the sport has known.

"You're renting a title until someone else takes it away," Miller said recently. "So if you're too attached to it, you're going to be bummed out when your rental agreement runs out. I think I've done well. I look back on it and I wouldn't change very much."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Road to Sochi/Hannah Kearney

(News Senior Sports Columnist Jerry Sullivan is profiling U.S. athletes leading up to the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, which begin Feb. 7)

 

Kearney, 27, is an overwhelming favorite to defend the gold medal she won four years ago in moguls skiing.  She is a native of Norwich, Vt., a small town of about 4,000 residents that has produced 11 current or former winter Olympians. Kearney attends Dartmouth College. She considers herself "half-Canadian" because her mother grew up in Montreal and she has relatives living there.

In 2006, Kearney was a medal favorite in Turin, but faltered and did not make the final. She won the World Cup season title in moguls in 2009 and was ready for Vancouver, where she led in qualifying and skiied a clean final run to win gold. She won the World Cup season title in moguls from 2011-13 and has three wins on the Cup circuit this season, establishing her as the clear favorite in Sochi.

Kearney calls mogul skiing "the best full-time job in the world". She says she takes great motivation from the fact that being the best in the world makes you a target for the other skiiers. When she lost a recent race in Vancouver, she said she let up and promised it wouldn't happen again.

The last time Kearney was in Sochi, which is a resort on the Black Sea, she went swimming. It can get warm in Sochi in the winter. She said she might take another dip. Maybe she'll do it to celebrate gold. She won't have long to wait. The women's moguls final is Feb. 8, the day after the Opening Ceremony.

 

 

 

 

Road to Sochi/Kikkan Randall

(News Senior Sports Columnist Jerry Sullivan is profiling U.S. athletes leading up to the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, which begin Feb. 7)

 

Randall, 31, will be competing in her fourth Olympics and attempting to become the first American woman to win a cross country medal at the Games. The only U.S. skiier ever to make the podium in the Nordic events was Bill Koch, who won a surprise silver at Innsbruck in 1976.

The "Kikkanimal" has won 17 national titles and is a two-time world sprint champion. Randall, the niece of former cross country ski Olympians Chris Haines and Betsy Haines, has 11 World Cup wins on her resume, including two in the past month. She won five World Cup events in 2013, including the team sprint. In 2009, she became the first U.S. woman to win a championship at the worlds.

Randall, who hails from Alaska, seems to be peaking for Sochi. She took a dominating victory last week in a freestyle sprint in the Czech Republic, winning handily in all three rounds to capture her first World Cup victory of the season. Known for her pink hair and outfits, Randall is married to former Canadian ski racer Jeff Ellis.

"At every Olympics, I've been so excited to represent my country, but I've always wanted to be in the hunt for a medal," Randall said last week. "I have confidence from my results over the last couple of years, and I'm just excited to have an opportunity to make history for the U.S."

 

Road to Sochi/J.R. Celski

(News Senior Sports Columnist Jerry Sullivan is profiling U.S. athletes leading up to the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, which begin Feb. 7)

Celski, 23, is the USA's pack leader and leading hope for gold
in short track speedskating. He'll step into the void left by
legendary Apolo Anton Ohno, who retired with eight Olympic medals, the
most ever by an American winter athlete.

Celski hails from Federal Way, Wash., the same Seattle suburb
as Ohno, his good friend and mentor. He'll compete in the 500,
1,000 and 1,500 meters in Sochi. Celski won two bronze medals
at the 2010 Olympics -- in the 1,500 meters and the 5,000-
meter relay, where he was on a relay with Ohno.

It was a minor miracle that Celski even made it to Vancouver.
At the 2010 U.S. Trials, his right skate slashed his left thigh in
a crash, spurting blood on the ice and nearly severing his
femoral artery. Four months later, he was on the podium.

Celski, an honors student in high school, planned to attend
Cal-Berkeley after the 2010 Games. Instead, he started a
business to promote the Seattle arts scene and took a year off
to rekindle his love for skating. 

An English teacher once told Celski, "School is a place; the
Olympics float in time."

Once again, that time is upon him.

Road to Sochi/Shani Davis


(News Senior Sports Columnist Jerry Sullivan is profiling U.S. athletes leading up to the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, which begin Feb. 7)

Davis, 31, is looking to become the first American man to win gold in any sport in three Winter Olympics and stake a claim to the title of greatest male speedskater in history.

In 2006, Davis won the 1,000 meters in Turin, becoming the first black athlete to win individual gold at a Winter Games. He defended his 1,000 crown in Vancouver. He took silver in the 1,500 meters in 2006 and '10, losing to Dutchman Mark Tuitert in an upset in Vancouver.

Davis, who was raised by a single mother on the South Side of Chicago, is the all-time leader in U.S. Championship medals with 45. He's a 13-time gold medalist at the World Cup. He holds the world record at 1,000 meters (1:06.42) and 1,500 meters (1:41.04).

At times, Davis has been a difficult champion, distant from the media and at odds with his national federation over marketing and sponsorship. His mother, Cherie, is seen as overly protective and has feuded with editors and writers about their coverage of her son.

Davis has called himself a "solo entity." He was criticized by U.S. teammate Chad Hedrick for not entering the team pursuit in Turin.

“Anytime I step out on the ice and I put my hood on, I have something to prove,” Davis said recently. "It’s not easy. These guys are getting stronger and stronger.”

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