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Opinion: 15 most important U.S. Olympic athletes in the Winter Games

Larry Brown Sports logo Larry Brown Sports 2/9/2018 Dan Benton
a person wearing a hat © Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

The 2018 Winter Olympic Games are underway, and it’s time to familiarize yourself with some U.S. athletes you need to root for. Here’s a look at 15 of the most important U.S. athletes competing at the Winter Games and what they hope (and many believe) they can accomplish.

15. Kelly Clark, snowboarder

34-year-old Kelly Clark is no stranger to Olympic competition, having competed in every single Winter Games since 2002. She won halfpipe gold in 2002 and then brought home bronze in the same event in both 2010 and 2014. Clark is also a one-time Winter Dew Tour gold medalist, one-time New Zealand Winter Games gold medalist ,and a five-time Winter X Games gold medalist. Her wealth of experience not only puts her ahead of the competition, but becomes exceptionally valuable for Team USA as a whole.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to represent my country to the rest of the world, to represent snowboarding and women, it’s been one of the greatest privileges of my life,” Clark told PEOPLE. “And it’s really fun as an athlete because you work four years for a 30-second halfpipe run, so you really get to see what you built. It’s really a rubber-meets-the-road type of situation.”

14. Bradie Tennell, figure skater

Whenever 20-year-old Bradie Tennell hits the ice, the references to Cinderella will be abundant. Not only does the blonde bear a striking resemblance to the beloved Disney character, and not only does she skate to music from 2015’s “Cinderella,” but her entire story is Cinderella-like. Only three months ago, few people in the world knew who Tennell was. Now, heading into her first Olympic Games, she’s a budding superstar, and her rise to success is second-to-none. In her first senior Grand Prix assignment — the Skate America Grand Prix in 2017 — Tennell became the first female skater to medal in her debut in 10 years. Then, in January, she won the U.S. national title and earned an unexpected spot in the Olympics.

“There are moments where it’ll hit me and I’ll be like, ‘wow, three months ago I was nobody and now I’m U.S. champion.’ It’s a great feeling,” Tennell told NBC.

13. Mia and Alex Shibutani, ice dancing

The brother and sister duo of Mia and Alex Shibutani placed just ninth at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, but since those struggles, they have gone on a bit of a winning streak in international competition. They have two world championship medals — a silver in 2016 and a bronze in 2017 since Sochi, and that’s to go along with a bronze in 2011. They have also won three medals at the Four Continents Championships (gold, silver and bronze) and have improved enough to put themselves in competition for a podium placement in South Korea.

“This time around, we’re comfortable with the venue,” Alex told WSMV Nashville. “We had a great competition last February at Four Continents Championships. Every interaction we’ve had with people in Korea has been fantastic. We know the power of the Games and what it can do to the power of sport and young people in a country. We’re looking forward to going to this Games with a better perspective on what it all means, and the value it brings to not just us, but everyone around the world who participates and watches and is inspired by it.”

12. Mikaela Shiffrin, skier

The 22-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin made her Olympic debut at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi and promptly won gold in slalom skiing. She’s also the first alpine skier to win five straight World Cups in 20 years and could be looking in the face of history at the 2018 Winter Games. Shiffrin is aiming to become the first U.S. women’s skier to win three medals at one Olympic Games and the first U.S. skier of either gender to claim two gold medals since Andrea Mead Lawrence in 1952. She just has to overcome the pressure of being a heavy favorite.

“I have been thinking a lot about this,” Shiffrin told the Denver Post. “There is a reason oftentimes the favorites don’t perform at the Olympics and the underdogs win. Nobody is expecting anything of the underdogs and all of a sudden they have this brilliant performance, whereas the favorites are caving under the expectations.”

11. Maame Biney, short track speedskating

Born in Ghana, the 18-year-old Maame Biney came to America when she was just 5 and immediately took to skating. At a coach’s recommendation, Biney switched to speed skating and has never looked back. Now, 13 years later, she’ll appear in her first-ever Olympic Games and has already made history in doing so. Biney became the first African-American woman to make the U.S. Olympic speedskating team, and now wants to make a little more history.

“My goal in life is to obviously get the gold one day. After that, I want to be a chemical engineer, and start a family, and be really happy in life,” Biney told the Salt Lake Tribune. “But I just want to go out there and have fun and experience this. This is my first Games.”

10. Chloe Kim, snowboarder

The pressure is on for the 17-year-old Chloe Kim to live up to her vast expectations at the 2018 Winter Olympics. After missing Sochi because she was too young (although she did qualify), the four-time Winter X Games gold medalist will now make her Team USA Debut in PyeongChang. The belief is that Kim, who was the first woman ever to land back-to-back 1080s in competition, will become America’s next snowboarding sweetheart and success story. And she’ll be able to do it in the very country her parents called home.

“It’s some crazy luck that my first Olympics are going to be in Korea where my parents are from. A lot of my relatives over there have never really seen me compete before, so I think it’s going to be pretty cool for everyone,” Kim told PEOPLE.

9. Brian Gionta, hockey

Team USA has a legitimate issue as they enter the 2018 Winter Olympic Games: no NHL players. Of course, the same can be said for all countries entering the international competition, so any sort of experience becomes paramount. Enter Brian Gionta, who spent 15 seasons in the NHL with the New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens. The 39-year-old is also one of only two members of Team USA who previously played in the Olympics when the U.S. finished ninth in Torino in 2006. He scored four goals in six games that year, but aims for a bigger prize in 2018 despite the long odds.

“It’s an advantage to be together with some of the guys that will be on that team. But it’s also a big advantage because the whole coaching staff’s going to be over there. It’s the first case you get to implement the system that they want and playing within that,” Gionta told NBC. “In year’s past, you haven’t had that luxury of being able to play for that coach or with those guys until you get over there and you have a couple of practices and you’re right into it.”

8. Brianna Decker, hockey

26-year-old Brianna Decker was a part of the U.S. women’s hockey team that took home silver in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, falling just short of gold to Canada. But now, the back-to-back Most Valuable Player of the National Women’s Hockey League (2015-16, 2016-17) who also led the league in scoring last season is looking for more. And to go along with her five gold medals from World Championship competition, she’s seeking that elusive Olympic gold.

“I know we’ve come up short a few times in the past but we’ve learned to deal with that pressure and we enjoy it,” Decker told NBC. “Our goal is to win the gold medal.”

7. Becca and Matt Hamilton, curling

For Americans who love curling, they’re going to see plenty of Becca and Matt Hamilton. Not only will the brother and sister duo be competing in the men’s and women’s curling competition, but they also are participating in the first-ever mixed doubles curling competition (and have had some struggles so far). In 2017, the duo won the 2017 national championship, and Becca was named USA Curling’s Female Athlete of the Year. And now, headed into Olympic competition, the siblings feel as if they may have the upper hand.

“Getting that momentum going and seeing that we can actually work together and that it’s in our hands, if we can control how we’re talking to each other, we’re going to have a good outcome,” Becca told the Wisconsin State Journal.

6. Nathan Chen, figure skater

Nathan Chen may only be 18 years old, but he brings some of the most excitement and potential of any American athlete in the 2018 Winter Games. In fact, Chen is the only undefeated male singles figure skater in the world. In January, he also became first male figure skater in history to land five quadruple jumps in a single performance. Having earned a gold medal in the Four Continents Championships (2017), Grand Prix Final (2017) and Junior Grand Prix Final (2015-2016), Chen now aims to add Olympic gold to his collection. He got off to a rough start in the short program of the team competition, but he still has the individual competition to redeem himself.

“It’s a big moment for me,” Chen said said recently via the New York Post. “I’m really just excited to get out there. Everything outside of the actual program will be very different, although I don’t know exactly what that is yet. I’ll see it as it comes along, but as soon as I’m on the ice, and doing a program, it’ll be the same as any other competition, and that’s what I’m focusing on.”

5. Jamie Anderson, snowboarder

As some may or may not recall, the 27-year-old Jamie Anderson earned gold in the inaugural Women’s Slopestyle Event at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. She has also won six Winter X Games gold medals and finished with either a gold or silver in every Winter X Games since 2015. Needless to say, this talented young snowboarder is ascending and could be poised to put on a show in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games now that she’s feeling more “relaxed” with her meteoric rise.

“I think my approach has changed,” Anderson told the Sierra Sun. “I’m trying to enjoy it more. I was really really stressed out in Sochi and had a lot of pressure. I feel like this time around I’m really feeling stoked on the privilege to be here.”

4. Gus Kenworthy, skier

The 26-year-old Gus Kenworthy is a two-time New Zealand Winter Games gold medalist, a three-time X Games medalist (two silver, one bronze) and a one-time Winter Olympic Games silver medalist, having finished second in the 2014 Sochi Games in men’s freestyle skiing. Shortly after those Games, Kenworthy also came out as gay and has been competing free of hiding that burden ever since. Heading into the 2018 Games, he not only looks to do the LGBT community proud, but is poised to win his first Olympic gold medal.

“I have the LGBT audience behind me and there’s all these people that I want to make proud and I want to do well aside from just myself, and so I feel like I’ve got a little bit more on my shoulders. But I also think that I do well under pressure so I’m hoping that that is a good thing for me and it’s all good influences,” Kenworthy told PEOPLE.

3. Adam Rippon, figure skater

Adam Rippon is a name you’ve probably heard before and will likely hear quite a bit more as we get into Olympic competition. The 28-year-old Rippon has been competing at the international level for 10 years, but was an alternate for the 2010 Winter Games and has never fully qualified for Team USA. However, after coming out as gay and winning a national championship in 2016, Rippon has felt more “free” and believes he had a competition breakthrough. Now entering his first Olympic competition as a fully qualified member of Team USA, Rippon aims to build upon his recent success and prove that he’s ready to become one of the best skaters in the world.

“That I’m actually training for the Olympics is kind of surreal and completely crazy,” Rippon told NBC. “But I’m treating it like a normal competition. Except, you know when you’re in practice, you wanna push yourself a little bit more, and you’re like, ‘you know what? I can calm down. It’s not the Olympics.’ Well, now it is the Olympics! So I’m trying to push myself even more so I feel as prepared as possible.”

2. Lindsey Vonn, skier

The 33-year-old Lindsey Vonn is one of the most recognizable names in U.S. international competition, having won a gold medal in the 2010 Winter Games and two other World Championships. She also sports 81 first place finishes in the World Cup with four overall titles. After missing the 2014 Winter Olympics due to injury, the veteran is returning in 2018 hungry for another medal, and the desire to represent her country with pride.

“Eight years has been a very long time. Obviously, I was very … disappointed and devastated and frustrated that I missed Sochi,” Vonn told the Seattle Times. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. I’m ready.”

1. Shaun White, snowboarder

By now, most fans are at least somewhat familiar with Shaun White. Like Lindsey Vonn, he’s a an athlete who transcends his sport and his country. The 33-year-old White is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a 13-time Winter X Games gold medalist and two-time X Games gold medalist (skateboarding). He also sports a slew of silver and bronze medals, but heading into the 2018 Winter Games, White is looking to put a disappointing showing in Sochi behind him and reestablish himself as the elite in the world.

“The biggest improvement was getting right with myself, getting right with my mind-set and being inspired again, being excited being a snowboarder and just go to the mountain and take runs for fun, get back to those beginning reasons of why I did the sport in the first place,” White told USA TODAY in January.

Related slideshow: Top images from the Olympics (Provided by photo services)

Winner Italy's Sofia Goggia (L) celebrates with third placed USA's Lindsey Vonn during the victory ceremony of the women's Downhill at the Jeongseon Alpine Center during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on February 21, 2018 in Pyeongchang. 2018 Winter Olympics
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