Go for the gold: Your guide to the 2014 Winter Olympics
WILLMAR, Minn. — In the United States, no other sporting event inspires as much good old-fashioned American pride as the Olympic Games.
Over the next two weeks, 230 U.S. athletes will compete in Sochi, Russia, as part of the 2014 Olympics. From traditional favorites such as figure skating and hockey to the more adrenaline-pumping skeleton and luge events, this Winter Olympics promises to be just as exciting as the ones before it.
The United States will be competing for gold medals in each discipline, but here is an in-depth look at three sports that also have a strong presence a little closer to home.
CURLING — EVENTS START MONDAY
Though curling is a fairly new sport in the Winter Olympics — it appeared at the first Winter Olympics in 1924, but did not become an official medal sport until the 1998 Games — the history of the sport itself dates back to the 1500s. It originated in Scotland, where people curled on lakes and channels outside.
Outside of Scotland, curling has long been a favorite sport in Canada, Sweden and Norway as well. In the United States, curling didn’t take off in popularity until more recently, according to Kevin Madsen, Willmar Civic Center arena manager and United States Curling Association ice technician.
“Compared to 20 years ago, we’ve seen amazing growth in the United States, and it continues to grow,” Madsen said. “But we have a long ways to go before we catch up to Canada.”
In more recent years, the Pacific Rim countries, including China and Japan, have started sending athletes to Canada to train for curling year-round. While these teams may not be contenders at the Sochi Olympics, Madsen expects them to be big players in upcoming Olympic Games.
“It’s becoming more and more about the Chinese and the Japanese,” he said. “In the next four to eight years, I expect we’ll see those countries put some good teams on the ice.”
Rules and objectives
Non-curlers might know curling as that “sport with the brooms” — and, well, they’d be correct, though the strategy it involves may surprise some.
Commonly referred to as “chess on ice,” curling involves two teams of four players each. There’s a lead (the person who throws the first rock down the ice), two sweepers (who take the curl off the rock to make it go further), and a skip (who makes all of the calls on the other end of the ice).
“Curling is a lot more than throwing rocks,” said Matt Proehl, instruction and education leader of the Willmar Curling Club. “It’s really a team sport. No position on the team is more important than another.”
Curling is played in “ends,” and only one team can score per end. In each end, all four players on both teams throw two rocks down the ice. Points are determined by where the rock lands in the “house,” or a series of circles at the other end of the ice. A team scores one point for each rock that’s closer to the center of the house than the opposition. In the Olympics, teams will play 10 ends to determine a winner.
For those new to curling, the vocabulary can make the sport difficult to understand at first. While watching the Olympics, expect to hear the “4 H’s,” Proehl said, which include:
- Hack: A device that curlers push off when throwing the rock.
- Hog line: The line on the ice where a player must let go of the rock. On the other end of the ice, it’s the line that a rock has to cross to be counted.
- House: The colored circles at either end of the ice, where points are determined.
- Hammer: The last rock thrown, giving that team the best chance of scoring.
What to know for the Olympics
In Sochi, there will be two curling medals up for grabs in men’s and women’s team competition. Twelve teams will compete in each division, and the United States will have both a men’s and women’s team.
The U.S. men’s curling team won the bronze medal in the 2006 Games, and the women’s team won the world competition in 2003. Expectations are high for both teams to perform well in these Olympic Games, Proehl said.
“I’d be surprised if we didn’t see the U.S. teams in contention,” Proehl said. “I’m hopeful.”
That said, Canada, Scotland, Sweden and Norway are always heavy favorites in both the men’s and women’s competition, and the United States will face a hard battle to knock these teams out of the running, he said.
Minnesota will be well-represented on the two U.S. curling teams. The men’s team is comprised entirely of Minnesota players, with an alternate from Wisconsin. The men’s coach, Tim Muller, is also from Minnesota. John Shuster, from Duluth, will be participating in his third Olympics and will be an exciting player to watch, Proehl said.
The women’s team has one player from Minnesota, Jessica Schultz, and alternate Allison Pottinger is also from Minnesota.
CROSS COUNTRY SKIING — EVENTS START TODAY
Like curling, the origins of cross country skiing date back thousands of years. In prehistoric Nordic times, skiing was “a pretty major form of transportation” during the winter, according to Forrest Peterson, a member of the Willmar Nordic Ski Club.
That tradition was brought to North America by Norwegian and Swedish immigrants when they came to the United States, Peterson said.
“They skied to hunt and get around,” he said.
Cross country skiing was included in the first Winter Olympics in 1924, but women’s competition was not included in the Games until 1952. Traditionally, the Nordic countries — Norway, Sweden and Russia — have been the teams to beat.
Despite its presence in the Olympic Games, it wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s that cross country skiing became a popular recreational sport. In the Willmar area, Sibley State Park groomed its first trails in the early 1970s, and the city of Willmar bought equipment and groomed a trail in the 70s as well, Peterson said.
Rules and objectives
Cross country skiers participate in races, and a skier wins an event by finishing the course in the least amount of time.
There are two disciplines of Nordic skiing: classic and skate skiing, or freestyle, which started in 1981, according to Tim Daniels, a member of the Willmar Nordic Ski Club. In skate skiing, a skier directs the skis in and out while transferring their weight at the same time, similar to ice skating.
Equipment plays a major role in cross country skiing. All skiers have skis, poles, boots and bindings, which keep the toe of the boot attached to the ski, while still allowing the heel to move.
Professional skiers also wax their skis depending on current conditions. For example, skiers will apply a certain type of wax in the morning when it’s colder, but if it warms up in the afternoon, they will need to apply a different wax. In a race, skiers may stop to re-wax their skis, depending on conditions.
“It’s phenomenal how much the wax makes a difference in the speed of the skier,” Daniels said. “The Olympic skiers might bring half a dozen skis waxed differently to a race, and that morning they’ll pick which one to use. You have the wrong kind of wax, and you’ll lose time in a hurry.”
Compared to other sports, equipment plays a much larger role in cross country skiing, Peterson said.
“In cross country skiing, you have to consider the physical condition of the athlete, their technical skill as a skier and their equipment,” he said. “That distinguishes it from other sports.”
What to know for the Olympics
There are six cross country skiing events in both men’s and women’s competition at the 2014 Olympics. They include classic, skiathlon, sprint, long, team sprint and a relay.
Cross country skiing is also part of the Nordic Combined events, which pair ski jumping with a cross country ski race, and the biathlon, which features cross country skiing and rifle shooting.
In the men’s division, expect U.S. biathlete Tim Burke to have a good chance for a medal, Peterson said. First-time Olympian Jessie Diggins, from Stillwater, is “also expected to have a good chance” in her cross country skiing events, Peterson said.
Cross country skiing is not a sport that the United States has always dominated, but in recent years, Team USA has shown more promise to be serious contenders.
“We broke ground last Olympics by medaling,” Peterson said. “Historically, the sport has been dominated by Europeans. It’s been a long climb up for us to get here.”
FIGURE SKATING — EVENTS STARTED THURSDAY AND CONTINUE TODAY
One of the most popular Olympic events, figure skating in a modern form originated in the mid-1800s.
Figure skating was actually included as an event at the 1908 Summer Olympics. It permanently moved to the Winter Olympics at the first Winter Games in 1924.
In recent years, Russia, the United States, Canada, Japan and China have generally produced the top figure skaters in the Olympic Games.
Rules and objectives
In figure skating, single skaters or pairs perform routines and are awarded scores based on their performances. At the end of competition, the skater or pair with the highest combined total score wins.
In the Olympics, all the routines will be freestyle programs, meaning the skaters will combine jumps and spins while using technical footwork to connect their steps.
In 2006, the Olympics switched from a 6.0 judging system to the International Judging System, or IJS. Under the IJS, skaters are awarded more points for harder moves.
“The judges will look at each element differently, and then add them up,” said Holly Kidrowski, an 18-year-old senior at Willmar High School who skates on both the Diamond Edge Figure Skating Club in Willmar and the St. Cloud Figure Skating Club. “It’s better for the skaters to have a more technical routine.”
In addition, once a skater has completed half of their program, any jump performed will be worth more points, Kidrowski said. Essentially, that rewards a skater for putting more difficult moves at the end of their routine, when it’s more physically strenuous to do so.
In both short and long routines, figure skating requires intense amounts of stamina and strength, Kidrowski said, but what can often separate the winners from losers can be their attitude and how they deal with slip-ups.
“You have to have a strong mentality and be persistent,” Kidrowski said. “Skaters really need to have a short-term memory. If you fall, you have to forget about it immediately or it will affect your whole program. You have to force yourself to think ahead.”
What to know for the Olympics
Five sets of medals will be awarded for figure skating in the 2014 Olympics: single skating (men and ladies), mixed pairs skating, ice dancing and team events.
On the women’s side, expect Yuna Kim from Korea and Mao Asada from Japan to be in tight competition for gold in single skating, Kidrowski said. Kim is the reigning Olympic champion, but Asada’s signature move — her triple axel — could give her a significant edge on Kim. Asada will be the only woman attempting a triple axel in this Olympics.
“If she lands a strong triple, she will definitely give Kim a run for her money,” Kidrowski said.
In ladies single skating, Team USA will be represented by 18-year-old Gracie Gold, 22-year-old Ashley Wagner and 15-year-old Polina Edmunds. Gold, the 2014 U.S. National Figure Skating Champion, will likely be the United States’ best chance for a medal, Kidrowski said.
Despite her young age, Edmunds will also be a skater to watch, according to Beth Fischer, president of the Diamond Edge Figure Skating Club.
“Polina Edmunds will definitely be somebody the media latches onto at such a young age,” Fischer said.
In the men’s division, U.S. single skaters include Jeremy Abbott, 28, and Jason Brown, 19. Fischer is especially excited to watch Brown perform.
“He is an amazing skater and really has a way to connect with his audience,” she said. “He hadn’t even finished his program at the National Championships and the crowd was on their feet. He doesn’t have a quad like most men, but he is definitely a performer and the connection piece will make for great viewing.”