Schmuck: Olympic fans looking for U.S. gold may have to look beyond big-ratings events

If you want to fully enjoy the 17-day Winter Olympics that will begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Friday, you might have to broaden your horizons.

The United States team will lack some of the star power that American fans have come to expect from the major Winter Olympic events, but there will be plenty of medal hopefuls and interesting storylines for those who want to dig deeper into the wide, evolving array of sports that will be on display for — literally — nearly 2,000 hours on NBC’s various television, internet and social media outlets.

What there won’t be are the elite hockey players who have previously taken a break from the NHL season to play for their home countries at the Olympics. There also will not be the usual group of American medal favorites in the figure skating competition, which also is one of the cornerstone events that drive television ratings.

Of course, there could always be another “Miracle on Ice,” though this time it would have to involve a sweep of the individual figure-skating events, since the United States will be sending only one skater – 18-year-old Nathan Chen – who is considered a strong contender to win a medal.

Perhaps nothing should be considered out of the question after it was announced in January that the North and South Korean teams will march together into the opening ceremonies under one flag and will compete together on a unified women’s hockey team, making good on the desire of the South Korean organizers to frame the 102-event Olympiad as the “Peace Games.”

The United States will be well represented in the Alpine skiing events, with 2017 world champion Mikaela Shiffrin and World Cup superstar Lindsey Vonn both hoping to come home with multiple gold medals.

Shiffrin, who at 18 became the youngest skier ever to win gold in an Olympic slalom event, made headlines at the 2014 Sochi Games when she revealed her “really crazy” dream of winning five golds in South Korea. That might be a stretch and obviously depends on how many more events she enters after she competes in the giant slalom and slalom.

It’s probably more realistic to envision her tying an Olympic Alpine skiing record with three gold medals in one Olympiad, but she has been the most dominant World Cup skier over the past year and recently won a World Cup downhill for the first time. She has a chance to be the American face of the games and she has not shied away from that challenge.

The U.S. ski team also will feature a number of comeback stories, including Vonn, who will compete in her fourth Olympics after battling a series of injuries, and 2014 gold medalist Ted Ligety, who has undergone ACL and lower back surgery over the past two years.

Local fans have been spoiled by the exploits of Michael Phelps over the past four Summer Olympic cycles, but there will only be a few Maryland storylines in Pyeongchang.

Summer Britcher, who was born into a family of Baltimore City firefighters, will compete in her second Olympics after winning two medals at the Luge World Cup in Germany.

Former Atholton student Thomas Hong will be returning to his country of birth to compete in short-track speedskating.

Haley Skarupa of Rockville is a member of the U.S. women’s hockey team, which has won gold in seven of the past eight world championships but has not won Olympic gold since 1998, the first year women’s hockey was added to the Winter Games.

No doubt, the traditional events will still be prominent on the broadcast channels. Figure skating and hockey have long been among the most popular Olympic sports and will continue to draw strong ratings.

Chen is considered the U.S. team’s best hope for a medal after quickly establishing himself as one of the most athletic figure skaters in history. He is the king of the quad, becoming the first skater to land five different quadruple jumps in competition and the first to land five quads in a single free skate. Look for him to be a huge fan favorite in Pyeongchang.

More and more, however, the Olympics are channeling the X Games by incorporating and expanding cutting-edge sports that excite a younger audience. The ramp for the first-time snowboarding event called men’s big air is the biggest in the world, standing 14 stories high and promising to take the trick-jumping extreme sport to a new level.

There are all sorts of interesting angles. Superstar snowboarder Shaun White will be back for his fourth Olympics looking to add to a pair of gold medals and show off his scars from a terrible training accident in October.

White might seem forever young, but look for some breakout performances to come from teenage athletes who weren’t even age-eligible for the Sochi Games four years ago.

Top halfpipe star Chloe Kim, just 17, figures to be all over your TV screen as she makes her Olympic debut in her ancestral homeland. Kim’s parents emigrated from South Korea and she went back last year as a U.S. sports envoy to meet with university students and young Korean Olympic hopefuls. She is considered one of the top U.S. candidates to win gold at Pyeongchang and would be the youngest American ever to win an Olympic snowboarding medal.

Fellow Californian halfpipe snowboarder Maddie Mastro is just two months older than Kim and is chasing the same goals after finishing just behind Kim in the Olympic qualifier at December’s U.S. Grand Prix in Colorado.

The Olympics have always been in a state of evolution, and the X-volution has gathered steam since snowboarding was introduced in 1998, with halfpipe walls that were just 8 feet high. Four years ago, the height of the halfpipe walls were raised from 18 to 22 feet for the Sochi Games and of the 12 sports added for those Winter Olympics, nine of them were considered extreme winter sports.

This year, the addition to men’s big air has raised the bar again, and there also has been an attempt to spice up some of the old standards with a mass-start speedskating event, a team skiing competition and the introduction of mixed doubles in curling.

There’s a lot to digest and way more hours of broadcast television and streaming coverage than actually exist in 18 calendar days, but can you think of a better way to chill out before the start of baseball season?

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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