Friday, April 18, 2014
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With Vonn out, some women who could be Sochi stars

Lindsey Vonn’s announcement that she will miss the Sochi Olympics because of a right knee injury leaves a glaring gap for other athletes to fill.

As a star of Alpine skiing, Vonn was sure to get plenty of attention — from other athletes, from the media, from fans. As an American, she was sure to be one of the central figures in NBC’s televised coverage in the United States.

“We wish we still had Lindsey there, but we don’t,” NBC Sports Group chief Mark Lazarus said Tuesday. “That’s the nature of sports. … Lots of stars, unfortunately, get hurt.”

So with Vonn now gone from these Winter Games, there is room for someone else to become a medalist, a household name, an international star during the 2½ weeks of competition.

Here’s a look at five women to know in Sochi, where the opening ceremony is a month away:

MIKAELA SHIFFRIN, U.S., Alpine Skiing: She’s young and American and very, very good, a solid formula at Olympic time.

All of 18, Shiffrin already is the best slalom ski racer around, and she has a world championship and World Cup discipline title to prove it. From Colorado, which Vonn also calls home nowadays, Shiffrin has been tagged with the label of “Next Big Thing” in her sport, picked as the World Cup rookie of the year in 2012 while traveling the circuit with her mother, Eileen.

Shiffrin earned her second slalom win of the current season — and sixth of her nascent career — just this past Sunday, at Bormio, Italy, in precisely the sort of rainy and rut-filled conditions racers might face at the Rosa Khutor resort that will host Alpine skiing at these Olympics.

KIM YU-NA, South Korea, Figure Skating: Already a huge star in her own country thanks to a gold medal at Vancouver four years ago, she very well could broaden her fan base if she can accomplish something only two other women have — repeat as Olympic champion in figure skating. Katarina Witt did it in 1984 and 1988, and Sonja Henie won in 1928, 1932 and 1936.

Not only are there no American women expected to challenge Kim, no one from any country is likely to make things tough on her. At the 2010 Games, she set records for the short program, free skate and total score that haven’t been approached by anyone other than her, when she won the 2013 world title.

As it is, hers is a sport that always gets a ton of attention during the Olympics, and Kim even comes equipped with a nickname fit for stardom: “Queen Yu-na.”

HEATHER RICHARDSON, U.S., Speedskating: A former inline skater from North Carolina, Richardson “could be a real Olympic breakout star,” was the way Ted Morris, U.S. Speedskating’s executive director, put it a couple of months ago.

He’s biased, of course, but he also might be right if Richardson becomes the first American women’s long track medalist since 2002, when Chris Witty won gold in the 1,000. Richardson was the overall World Cup champion at that distance.

If it’s not Richardson in short-track skating, it might be the personable Brittany Bowe, another ex-inline skater who was a point guard at Florida Atlantic.

Their sport also features the sort of compelling story TV producers like to set to music: Claudia Pechstein of Germany, who will turn 42 during the Olympics, her sixth Winter Games, and has won nine medals already. Oh, and there’s this, too: Her career was tainted by a two-year doping ban that kept her from competing in Vancouver; she never tested positive for drugs, but was suspended based on irregular blood levels.

LINDSEY JACOBELLIS, U.S., Snowboarding: Hers could be the sort of “redemption” tale we hear a lot during the Olympics.

A seven-time champion in snowboardcross at the Winter X Games, she’s never brought home gold from the plain ol’ Winter Games — but she sure is famous for a flashy grab of her board on the final jump in 2006 that sent her tumbling. That move might have been “cool,” but it was absolutely not needed. In 2010, she wound up fifth.

If she finally gets to be an Olympic champion in a sport that attracts younger viewers, Jacobellis will surely be one we hear a lot about.

JULIE CHU, U.S., Ice Hockey: A forward who played at Harvard, Chu already is getting face time in American television ads.

At 31, she’s the oldest member of the U.S. team, and she’ll be heading to her fourth Olympics in search of her first gold, after already collecting two silvers and a bronze.

Women’s hockey could draw extra eyeballs this time around if the heated rivalry between the United States and Canada continues in Sochi: They’ve engaged in a series of brawls, even in exhibitions.

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

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