With controversy, riveting rivalries, inspiring comebacks, and potential record-breaking moments, you'd be crazy not to tune in!
The Next Lindsey Vonn
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Though Mikaela Shiffrin (pictured) constantly reminds press not to call her Lindsey, the 18-year-old alpine skier is America's best bet at picking up where 2010 Vancouver Olympic gold medalist Lindsey Vonn left off now that she’s bowed out of the Games due to a knee injury. Pressure is on Shiffrin—the youngest American skier to be a World Cup champion—to step up to the piste and prove, once and for all, she's no second-choice favorite but rather a true force to be reckoned with. [Tweet this news!]
The Soar Winner
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Austrian ski jumper Thomas Morgenstern suffered skull and lung injuries after a terrifying crash during a training run for a World Cup event in Austria in mid-January. The three-time Olympic champion lost his balance mid-air after launching off one of the five largest ski hills in the world. The 27-year-old landed on his back and head, causing him to briefly lose consciousness. Three days later, doctors gave him the medical all-clear. Though Morgenstern has no memory of the crash, he has seen footage of it and is already hard at work rehabbing for the Games (the individual competition on the normal hill is scheduled for February 8).
Women Will Fly
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Among all the sports making their Olympic debut, none feels sweeter or more overdue than women's ski jumping. Men's ski jumping has been part of the Winter Olympics since the inaugural Games in 1924. Women were shut out from competing at the Olympic level until April 2011 (nearly 90 years later) when the International Olympic Committee finally gave in to the decade-long protests of the world's top female ski jumpers, including 2009 world champion Lindsey Van. [Tweet this fact!] (Incidentally, she once held the record—among women and men—for the longest jump in Whistler, British Columbia.) In December 2013, Jessica Jerome became the first American woman in history to qualify for Team USA's ski jumping team that will catch air in Sochi.
The Biggest Games Ever
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No Winter Olympics in history has ever boasted such a rich sporting program. With so many new disciplines—including including ski halfpipe, ski slopestyle, snowboard slopestyle, snowboard parallel special slalom, biathlon mixed relay, luge team relay, and a figure skating team event—across seven Olympic sports making their debut, Sochi will be the biggest sports stage the world has ever seen.
Ice Dancing Drama
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Things are heating up on the ice for Olympic silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who need to dethrone the reigning champions from Canada, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, to win USA's first-ever gold in ice dancing. Problem is, the two couples share a training rink in Canton, MI. And that's not all; they also have the same coach, Marina Zoueva. To help give them the cutting edge, Davis and White have asked five-time Dancing With the Stars champion Derek Hough to help them choreograph an unbeatable program.
Bigger Bling Than Kim Kardashian’s Ring
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A record number 1,300 medals have been manufactured for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. This includes 98 sets of bronze, silver, and gold for just the Olympics, which is 12 more than for the 2010 Vancouver Games and 14 more than for the 2006 Turin Games. Sochi's medals, which were created from a combination of metal and polycarbonate, will each have a mosaic that reflects the various cultures and ethnicities of the Russian Federation. Team USA will no doubt bring home a few dozen. At the last Winter Olympics, U.S. athletes earned 37 medals total (9 gold, 15 silver, and 13 bronze), the most of any country at the 2010 Games. [Tweet this fact!] With more sports (read: more chances to win) in Sochi, that tally is sure to rise.
Records Will Be Broken
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With 12 new medal events added, world records are bound to be both set and broken. And if the 2013 season is any indication, the veteran Olympic sports are likely to see epic moments too: Last November speedskater Brittany Bowe (pictured) set a new world-record in the 1,000-meter long track, and in December skeleton athlete Noelle Pikus-Pace won a world cup gold after she demolished a 12-year-old record on her home track in Park City, UT.
More Girl Power
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Thanks to the addition of women's ski jumping as well as the biathlon mixed relay events, Sochi will have the highest number of female athletes in a Winter Olympics. We're starting to see more equality on the coaching side too. For the first time in Olympic history, the U.S. women's ice hockey team will have a female coach: Katey Stone (pictured). One look at Stone's stats—19 seasons coaching at Harvard University and 402 victories (the most-ever wins in women's college hockey, including the 2013 International Ice Hockey Federation Women’s World Championship in Canada—and it's no wonder she landed the prestigious job.
The Ultimate Snow Job
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If a country has been selected to host the Winter Games, it must be a winter wonderland, right? Wrong. While Russia has plenty of powder, it doesn't want to risk falling short on race day, especially since the climate in Sochi is subtropical (February temps average highs in the 40s, making this the warmest Winter Olympic destination yet). So the city is pouring a pretty penny—er, ruble—into stockpiling snow (some 710,000 cubic meters) and keeping about 500 snowmaking cannons on hand just in case.
It’s Cray-Cray Costly
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No one said hosting the Olympics would be cheap. But a $50-billion bill may make the 2014 Sochi Winter Games the steepest ever. Of course, any city would undergo a serious facelift if the Olympics were coming to town, but Sochi didn't stop there. It got a boob job and tummy tuck too, adding infrastructure work (new railroad tracks, a 30-mile road, thousands of hotel rooms, and much more) in addition to the necessary new stadium and sports venues. Its makeover won't go to waste post-Olympics—the city is looking to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
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The 2012 London Olympics' Opening Ceremonies are a tough act to follow. The three-hour event was directed by Danny Boyle (Academy Award-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire) and featured 15,000 participants along with the legendary Paul McCartney, plus 12 horses, three cows, two goats, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, nine geese, 70 sheep, and three sheepdogs. While the Sochi plans are wraps, you won't want to miss seeing how this controversial host nation celebrates its culture. NBC must agree that it's going to be "out there"—they’re not planning to live-stream the four-hour event because they want to give their people, like Matt Lauer and Meredith Viera, a chance to make sense of it in the editing room first.
Figure Skating Fighting
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Two others duking it out in the rink: The 2010 Olympic gold medalist, Yuna Kim (pictured) from South Korea, and 2010 Olympic silver medalist, Mao Asada from Japan, in figure skating. While it'd be better to see two Americans triple-axeling each other for the win, these superstars are sure to give us a crowd-pleasing showdown.
What the Puck
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Expect another throwdown on the ice between the U.S. and Canadian men's hockey teams. After what happened four years ago in Vancouver when Canada's Sydney Crosby grabbed an overtime goal, edging out America for the win and gold medal, you can count on an epic rematch in Sochi—and if there's one thing Americans know how to do, it's get revenge. What'll make this game even more exciting is that it will be each country’s last chance to score a gold medal: The hockey finals are scheduled to take place just four hours before the closing ceremony on February 23 at 4 p.m. Sochi time. That might explain why it has quickly become the hottest ticket around, going for as much as some $17,000 a seat!
One Word: Curling
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If you had to, hypothetically-speaking, become an Olympian overnight, you know you'd pick curling, the sport that features crazy-looking, loose-fitting pants and top plus brooms. (Who doesn't already own these things?) And it's not like you need to be incredibly fit to do it, right? Take U.S. curler Jessica Schultz. The woman lost 30 pounds after competing in the 2006 Winter Games. But even if you don't take this event seriously, you may find some of the guys seriously sexy. Proof is in the 2014 “Men of Curling” charity calendar, [Tweet this fact!] featuring beefy hot shots like Canadian John Morris (pictured), who's also a firefighter ($29.95, menofcurling.com).
Will President Obama Snub Sochi?
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Rumor has it President Barack Obama will not attend the Games, nor will Vice President Joe Biden. Both may be boycotting the event, along with their wives, in response to Russia's anti-gay propaganda laws (though the White House claims there's a scheduling conflict). POTUS isn't the only major no-show: Other world leaders, including French President Francois Hollande and German President Joachim Gauck, are planning to be MIA as well.
There’s a Protest Zone Protecting Athletes
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There's no denying that people are pissed and will be looking for a soapbox to bitch at the Games. That's why they've set up a “protest zone” in Khosta, a Black Sea coastal town about seven miles from where athletes will compete. Besides gay rights, some people will likely complain about how President Vladimir Putin is buds with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who's been behind a bloody civil war since 2011. There also may be some backlash about some guy named Edward Snowden. The U.S. authorities have been trying to get their hands on the whistle-blower, who was granted asylum in Russia back in August, since he leaked top-secret government surveillance information to The Guardian. To top that off, 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the Circassian genocide, which took place in Sochi; some protestors are saying the Olympics are being held on “mass graves.” Oh yeah, and let's not forget that an Islamist military leader called on Muslin rebels to attack the Olympics.
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Often called the “Russian Riviera,” Sochi is one of the country's largest and most gorgeous resort towns. Sandwiched between the beautiful foothills of the Caucasus region and the stunning shores of the Black Sea, the city of some 400,000 exudes a rare mix of a Mediterranean and Alpine atmospheres. “Looking out of my room, I have the mountains on the left and the ocean on my right. It just gives you a sense of grandeur and I feel like you kind of take that to the ice,” figure skater and 2010 Olympic silver medalist Charlie White told Olympics.org after he and his ice dancing partner Meryl Davis won a Grand Prix event at Sochi’s Iceberg Skating Palace in December 2012.
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Who doesn't want to win in style? With Ralph Lauren designing the official uniforms for the opening and closing ceremonies as well as Olympic Village loungewear, Team USA will get to strut their hot stuff in sporty chic “Made in the USA” gear. Look for cool navy pea coats with a red stripe, classic ski sweaters with a reindeer motif, super-cute chunky knit hats, and, of course, the hand-sewn American flag. While you won't find these pieces on ShopBop, you can pick up a pair of warm blue mittens with the emblazoned “Go USA” logo ($14, teamusashop.com).
International Russian Celebrities
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Tennis may not be a winter sport, but that won't keep No. 3-ranked player in the world and 2012 Olympic silver medalist Maria Sharapova from swinging by the Sochi Games. The blonde beauty (our September 2013 cover model) will be returning to her hometown as a correspondent for NBC. Another famous face who's planning cover the Games while reconnecting with her roots: U.S. Olympic gold medal gymnast Nastia Liukin. The American is the daughter of two former Soviet gymnastics champions.
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Phil Kessel, a forward for the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs, made his Olympic debut—and nabbed silver—at the Vancouver Games in 2010. His little sister Amanda Kessel, who recently won the 2013 Patty Kazmaier Award (a.k.a. Collegiate National Player of the Year), wants to follow in his footsteps. If both Kessels make it to Russia, they would become the first American brother-sister combo to compete in ice hockey at the same Winter Games.
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At Vancouver, twin sisters Jocelyne (pictured) and Monique Lamoureaux came home with matching Olympic silver medals in ice hockey. The dynamic duo is determined to upgrade to gold in Sochi.
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Ice dancers and Sochi hopefuls Maia and Alex Shibutani wouldn't the first sister-brother pair to go to the Olympics. In 1984, sibling set Kitty and Peter Carruthers won silver medals in the Sarajevo Games. And in 1988, Natalie Seybold and her brother Wayne skated in the Calgary Games. The Shibutanis, however, could be the first-ever kin to win gold together.
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Brothers Taylor and Bryan Fletcher are two of the U.S. Nordic Combined Team's leading athletes. While Taylor has already made one trip to the Olympics (he competed in Vancouver), this would be a first for big brother Bryan, who is in remission for cancer (he was diagnosed with leukemia at age 3).
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Taking a cue from Justin Bieber, slopestyle skiier Tom Wallisch made a name for himself by posting his skiing videos on YouTube. He became so popular that The North Face and GoPro signed him on to star in commercials during primetime football games. His freestyle skills have proved to hold up in competition too: He's a four-time X Games medalist (two gold, two silver). Let's see if he can take his show on the road.
It's About to Get Weir in Here
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Two-time Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir has hung up his skates in favor of a microphone. The famously flamboyant and outspoken athlete has signed up to be an NBC commentator (along with Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski) in Sochi. If you thought you loved watching figure skating before, now you'll surely get a kick out of listening to it too!
Adorable Mascot Love
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Fall for any of the three super-cute cartoons (complete with made-up back-stories) that reflect Russia and the Sochi Games: 1) The scarf-wearing polar bear who was raised by Arctic explorers and knows how to ski, speed-skate, curl, and bobsled; 2) The bow-tie-wearing bunny who studies at the Forest Academy and helps out at the family restaurant when she's not taking part in all things sports; and 3) the cool-cat snow leopard who loves to snowboard on the highest peak of the snowy mountains in the Caucasus, where he lives and apparently doesn't eat his neighbors but rather saves 'em from avalanches.
Summer Games Athletes Chill Out
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Whatever Lolo Jones wants, Lolo gets—and she’s eyeing another shot at an Olympic medal, even if that means switching sports (and seasons). The Olympic hurdler swapped running shorts for a racing suit when she joined the U.S. bobsled team in October 2012, just two months after competing at the 2012 London Olympic Summer Games. [Tweet this fact!] Based on her short winter-sports career, she's a real contender: The brakewoman earned a gold medal at the mixed team event at the 2013 World Championships in St. Moritz. Jones isn't the only summer athlete who's been lured to hit the ice. Two-time Olympic medalist and sprinter Lauryn Williams as well as former pro softball player Elana Meyers are making a bobsledding run for Sochi.
The Other Lindsey
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Not to be confused with Vonn, Lindsey Van has also suffered many sidelining injuries. After making history in 2009 by becoming the first official women's world champion in ski jumping, Van spent the next two years battling back-to-back ankle and knee injuries. The slump may finally be over for the 15-time U.S. ski jumping national champion, who finished in the top five or top 10 most of the 2013 season. Scoring a spot on Team USA—and better yet, the podium at Sochi—would be a sweet victory for Van, who is one of the key pioneers of the women's ski jumping as an Olympic sport. And with teammate and gold-medal favorite Sarah Hendrickson battling a knee injury from her crash landing in August, the odds may be ever in her favor.
The Comeback Kid
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Mogul skier and two-time Olympian Hannah Kearney knows what it's like to have a second chance at being the best of the best. The reigning Olympic gold medalist sustained liver lacerations, two broken ribs, and a puncture lung when she crashed during a training session in Switzerland in October 2012. The horrific accident may have knocked her down—but not out. After a speedy three-month recovery, she managed to win gold at the 2013 World Championships last January. Apparently nothing is stopping her from taking what's rightfully hers.
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Alpine ski racer Bode Miller is back for more. Though the five-time Olympic medalist—one of the most decorated skiers of all time—missed last season due to a major knee injury that put him on the mend (and off the slopes) for 20 months, the veteran superstar is still out to make his fifth Olympic team. [Tweet this fact!] And he just might do it: In October, a 20-pound-lighter Miller placed 19th in the giant slalom in Austria at his first race of the season, and a month later, he finished 16th in the downhill in Canada.