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2014 Winter Olympics: 10 U.S. athletes to watch

Left to right: Steven Holcomb (bobsled), Ashley Wagner (figure skating) and Shani Davis (speed skating). CBS

Four years ago, American athletes took home 37 medals in Vancouver - a Winter Games record.

 Leading the way were star skier Lindsey Vonn, who became the first U.S. woman to win gold in the downhill, and speed skating icon Apolo Ohno, whose three medals in Vancouver cemented his place as the most decorated American Winter Olympic athlete of all time.

But now that Vonn has been sidelined with a knee injury and Ohno has officially retired, who will be the face of Team USA as it goes for gold in Sochi? Here are 10 athletes who figure to have a strong shot of making the medal podium at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia. 

Hilary Knight

Ice Hockey player Hilary Knight poses for a portrait during the USOC Media Summit ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics on October 2, 2013 in Park City, Utah. (Harry How, Getty Images) Harry How, Getty Images

On the rink, Hilary Knight has dominated at every level. She won a national title at the University of Wisconsin (where she holds the school record for goals scored). She's also raked in four Women's World Championships (in 2009, Knight led the tournament with seven goals). 

An Olympic rivalry: U.S.A. vs. Canada women's ice hockey
 The only hardware missing? An Olympic gold. At the 2010 Vancouver Games, the American women had to settle for silver, losing the final game to their rival Canada. Knight, who was the youngest member of that team at age 20, says the players haven't forgotten the bitter loss.

"It wasn’t a great feeling and it's still a feeling that haunts a bunch of us today and it's definitely in the back of our minds that we don’t want to feel that way again," Knight told CBS News.

The U.S.-Canada rivalry is heated. In an exhibition game in Burlington in October, the two teams engaged in a full-on brawl after the Canadians took issue with a hit to their goalie. Knight was in the middle of another melee when the teams threw punches again in a December game in Grand Forks, N.D.

 

U.S. Women's Hockey determined to take gold in Sochi
 In tune-up matches for Sochi, Knight has come through big time against their nemesis. On Dec. 28, Knight won the game with a shootout goal, and in a rematch with Canada two days later, she scored in Team USA’s 3-2 win. Knight expects another intense – and physical game – should the teams meet again in the gold medal round in Sochi.

"We're extremely physical teams and you'll get the best game out of both of us when we're playing against each other, hands down," she said. "It's heated, your blood boils and you just want to put the other girls through the boards and put the puck in the back of the net and win."


Steven Holcomb

United States' pilot Steven Holcomb and teammates Curtis Tomasevicz, Steven Langton and Christopher Fogt compete in the four-man bobsled World Cup event on Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, in Lake Placid, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll) AP Photo/Mike Groll

Just seven years ago, Steve Holcomb was nearly blind. A degenerative eye disorder forced the bobsled driver to the brink of retiring from the sport he loved and the Park City, Utah native became increasingly withdrawn – even attempting suicide in 2007.

U.S. bobsled driver on Sochi teammates: "We're ready"
 But a cutting-edge cornea procedure put him on the path to recovery, and within just a year, Holcomb became the first American to win a world championship in the four-man bobsled since 1959.

 "It was pretty crazy," Holcomb said of the dramatic turnaround.

Just two years after the eye procedure, Holcomb again would be king of the bobsled world. At the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, he led the USA-1 four-man bobsled team to a gold medal, ending a 62-year gold medal drought for Americans in the event. 

U.S. bobsledder talks vision loss, suicide attempt and gold-medal comeback
Now 33, Holcomb is at the top of his game, dominating the World Cup season, and setting his sights on another gold in Sochi – this time with teammates Curt Tomasevicz, Steve Langton and Chris Fogt. He told CBS News that he expects "a battle" at the Olympics, with the Germans and Russians providing the biggest competition.

"I know we can beat them. We have incredible equipment, a phenomenal push crew," Holcomb said, "and a great driver, I hope."

Julia Mancuso

Julia Mancuso of the U.S. reacts after the women giant slalom race at the Alpine ski World Cup finals on March 17, 2013 in Lenzerheide. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images) FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Julia Mancuso had a rough start to her World Cup season but the 29-year-old Californian is hitting her stride just in time for Sochi. After being plagued by persistent issues with failing to crack the top 10 in any World Cup race, Mancuso was the fastest skier at the World Cup downhill training and had two consecutive top-10 results in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.

 

"It's been a tough start but things are really going according to plan going to the Games," she told CBS News. "I feel exactly where I need to be."

The laid-back Mancuso has a reputation for being a fierce competitor, especially on the Olympic stage. At the 2006 Torino Games, the woman who had never won a World Cup race came out of nowhere to win gold in the giant slalom. Then in 2010, the slumping Mancuso turned it around in Vancouver, winning two silver medals in the downhill and combined. No other female American alpine skier has won three Olympic medals.

Mancuso admits she may turn it up a notch at the Games, in part, because of her hometown. Raised in Squaw Valley, Calif. – the host of the 1960 Olympics – Mancuso grew up in the shadow of the Olympic rings and always dreamed of skiing at the Games. Asked whether Sochi would be her last Olympics, Mancuso said she wasn't sure, conceding that it is tough to endure the travel schedule – and rollercoaster emotions – that come with the job. But she said that her avid fans – and her childhood dream – keep her inspired to keep going.

"I'm definitely surprised that I'm sitting here now … and I'm doing the same thing as a kid – dreaming about the Olympics," she said, "I didn’t know I'd be doing it for so long and I still feel like a kid."

Mikaela Shiffrin

Mikaela Shiffrin of the USA takes 1st place during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Slalom on January 14, 2014 in Flachau, Austria. (Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom, Getty Images) Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom, Getty Images

If there was any doubt that Mikaela Shiffrin was the best slalom skier in the women's World Cup, the teenager put that to rest with her second World Cup win in a row and third of the season.

"It's nice to sing my national anthem a couple of races before the Olympics," Shiffrin said after her World Cup slalom victory in Flachau, Austria. "Hopefully I can sing it again in Sochi."

Shiffrin's rise to the top of the alpine mountain has been swift. Still just 18 years old, she made her World Cup debut in 2011, two days before her 16th birthday. Less than a month later, Shiffrin was crowned the U.S. slalom champion, the youngest-ever American to win a national title.

And now with compatriot Lindsey Vonn out of the Olympics with a knee injury, Shiffrin finds herself increasingly in the spotlight. The Vail, Colo. native has already appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman and she was voted Colorado's Female Athlete of the Year.

Sharyn Alfonsi, who recently profiled Shiffrin for a segment on 60 Minutes Sports, says that coaches credit Shiffrin's mother Eileen, a masters ski champion, for Mikaela’s steady style. Eileen is a constant presence on the mountain when her daughter competes.

"The biggest reason I'm around is because I'm her mom," she told Alfonsi. "And in a normal world, I would be around."

If the 18-year-old wins in Sochi, she’ll be the youngest American alpine skier to win gold, ever. Alfonsi asked the rising star if she was peaking too early.

Shiffrin's response: "I’m just getting started, guys." 

Patrick Kane

FILE - In this June 24, 2013, file photo, Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane hoists the Stanley Cup after the Blackhawks beat the Boston Bruins 3-2 in Game 6 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals in Boston. (AP) AP

At just 25, Patrick Kane has already reached the top of the hockey world. Since claiming the rookie of the year award in 2008, the Chicago Blackhawks star forward has won two Stanley Cups, including the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff MVP last season.

But Kane and his teammates fell short of gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, losing the final game to Team Canada. At Sochi, Kane – who is arguably the best American-born player in the NHL – will lead an American team that hopes to win its first gold since the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" squad.

The oddsmakers have made Canada the favorite to repeat at Sochi – and Russia and Sweden have better odds than the Americans to win gold. But Kane said that while the U.S. players were considered underdogs in 2010, expectations are different this time.

"The only people that thought we had a chance [in Vancouver] were probably the guys in the locker room, or our coaches and management of USA Hockey," Kane said. "This time, it’s different."

Hannah Kearney

US Hannah Kearney celebrates after the women's FIS Freestyle Ski World Cup event in Kuusamo Finland on December 14, 2013. (HEIKKI SAUKKOMAA/AFP/Getty Images) HEIKKI SAUKKOMAA/AFP/Getty Images

Hannah Kearney recently said she has the "best full-time job in the world." If so, she can easily lay claim to employee of the year in U.S. mogul skiing, dominating the World Cup circuit after winning the world championships last year. 

 Kearney has had to work hard to regain her form. After a serious knee injury, a concussion, a bruised liver and broken ribs, she told CBS News she feels "fantastic" thanks to her renewed focus on diet and training.

"I want to stand in that start gate and have full confidence that I'm going to lay down a good run," Kearney said, "and for me that comes from knowing that I did exactly 1,022 jumps into a pool this summer to practice."

 

U.S. skier Hannah Kearney poised to defend her Olympic title
 In Russia, the 27-year-old from Vermont will be looking to add another Olympic gold medal to the one she claimed at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. She is peaking at the right time, winning three of her six events during the World Cup season – but she still thinks there is room for improvement as she prepares to hit the Sochi slopes.

"I truly believe I can become a better mogul skier," Kearney said. "My plan in Sochi is to ski the three or four best mogul runs of my life."

Shani Davis

NAGANO, JAPAN - JANUARY 18: Shani Davis of USA competes in men 1000m during Essent ISU World Sprint Speed Skating Championships 2014 at M Wave on January 18, 2014 in Nagano, Japan. (Atsushi Tomura, Getty Images) Atsushi Tomura, Getty Images

Though he's been a star on the oval for a decade, Shani Davis has been largely an enigma to the public – shunning interviews, rejecting sponsorship deals and refusing to train with a coach. Now 31, the speed skater – who still trains without a coach – is finally embracing the spotlight as he heads into what could be his final Winter Olympics in Sochi.

"It's my time," Davis told the Associated Press. "I'm going to try to take advantage of it, share myself and my story with the world as much as I can without it interfering with what I have to do."

In Russia, Davis is favored to win the 1,500 – a distance where he's had to settle for silver in the last two Winter Games. But all eyes will be on Davis in the 1,000, where he will try to become the first male skater to win the same event at three straight Olympics. (He captured gold in the event at both Turin and Vancouver).

The Chicago native has already made Olympic history, becoming the first black athlete to win an individual gold medal at the Winter Games. He started speed skating at age 6 and hasn't looked back.

''Any time I step out on the ice and I put my hood on, I have something to prove,'' Davis said recently. ''I've been doing it for 25 years. I just love being the position I'm in now. Years ago, I never would've thought I would be as good as I am now. I'm just so thankful that I'm here.''

Ted Ligety

Ted Ligety, of the United States, celebrates after winning an alpine ski men's World Cup super-combined event in Wengen, Switzerland, Friday, Jan. 17, 2014. (AP Photo/Keystone, Peter Schneider) AP Photo/Keystone, Peter Schneider

With his five Olympic medals and four World Cup golds, Bode Miller may be the face of the men's U.S. ski team. But the American man to watch in Sochi may very well be Ted Ligety.

Just ask Bode Miller.

"There's no questioning Ted's ability or his brain," Miller told the Associated Press. "He's smart and he's unique in that he takes responsibility for his situation. That's what has allowed him to be successful."

Ligety has proven almost unbeatable in the giant slalom, earning the nickname "Mr. GS." The 29-year-old from Park City, Utah captured four straight World Cup giant slalom races dating back to last season, the first to accomplish that feat in over two decades.

But don't think the laid-back Ligety is a one-dimensional skier. At the world championships last season, in addition to the GS title, he won the super-G and super-combined, becoming the first male skier to win three events since French great Jean-Claude Killy took home four golds at the 1968 world championships.

And he's not slowing down. Just a few weeks before the Sochi Games, Ligety won the super-combined in Wengen, Switzerland, for his first World Cup win outside the GS event.

"I feel very confident in my skiing,” Ligety said. “I know I have a good chance to win any race I start."


Ashley Wagner

Figure skater Ashley Wagner poses for a portrait during the USOC Portrait Shoot on April 25, 2013 in West Hollywood, California. (Harry How, Getty Images) Harry How, Getty Images

Less than a month before the Sochi Games, figure skater Ashley Wagner had a candid assessment of herself at the U.S. Championships in Boston: "A tearful little wimp out on the ice."

Despite falling twice and failing to cleanly land two other triple jumps on the big stage, Wagner is headed to Sochi anyway. In a controversial decision, the 22-year-old made the team based on her overall body of work, which includes a fifth place finish at the world championships and a bronze medal at the Grand Prix Final.

The two-time U.S. champion has vowed that she will be a different skater in Sochi and she's not taking a conservative approach. Wagner recently announced she is scrapping her long program in favor of one that will allow her to execute a triple-triple combination jump – something that only the world's elite female skaters can pull off.  According to the Washington Post, Wagner will skate to a program set to Camille Saint-Saens’ Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah.  She said the character fits her demeanor – and her determination.

“It’s a character I'm very comfortable with,” Wagner told the newspaper. “Delilah is this strong woman who knows what she wants, and she’ll go after it and get it any way that she needs to.”

J.R. Celski

J.R. Celski #705 (red helmet) skates in the first men's1,000 meter semifinal during the U.S. Olympic Short Track Trials at the Utah Olympic Oval on January 5, 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Matthew Stockman, Getty Images) Matthew Stockman, Getty Images

What a difference four years makes. During the trials five months before the Vancouver Olympics, speed skater J.R. Celski suffered a gruesome injury on the track when his right skate sliced his left leg, covering the ice in blood and throwing into doubt his ability to compete in Vancouver. Celski would bounce back in time to earn two bronze medals at the games – but memories of the crash lingered.

"Everybody gets those kind of thoughts in their heads," he told the Associated Press. "You've just got to push past them."

Four years later, Celski is fully healthy and at the top of his game. The skater, who sports an unusual tattoo that honors his Filipino-Polish heritage, recently won the 1,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic trials, assuring he'll compete in all three individual events (the 500, 1,000 and 1,500) in Russia. With speed skating icon Apolo Ohno retired, Celski will be America's biggest star at the short track – and he expects to rise to the occasion.

"I've gotten the experience, but this time is completely different for me," Celski told the AP. "Mentally, physically, I'm healthy. I'm going to ride that momentum. I look forward to doing some damage over there."