After Vonn: Which stars will shine in Sochi?
Canadian Mark McMorris could break out
Lindsey Vonn's withdrawal from the Sochi Olympics due to a knee injury was 'devastating' to the skier, but that it does provide opportunities for other athletes to gain the spotlight.
The impact will be felt on a number of levels.
Sochi star power
It is often difficult for winter sport athletes to garner mainstream attention worldwide, and Vonn was perhaps the most notable exception.
The IOC, who've made no bones about wanting to gain young fans of the Olympic movement, would no doubt love Shaun White and Regina's Mark McMorrisbattling it out in snowboarding. They’ve both proven game at engaging in some mild trash talk, and the more successful of the pair should have a lock on the “Male Action Sport” award at this year’s ESPYs.
Yuna Kim of South Korea, one of the highest-earning female athletes in the world, will look to defend her gold medal in figure skating. Her grace and skill on the ice should impress, although she’s tightly controlled by handlers. That factor, along with her limited English, make her impact outside the rink debatable.
Toronto’s Patrick Chan has the 'wow' factor when he's on his game, and is refreshingly honest when interviewed. There’s even been some sniping from non-Canadian media for the point totals he’s been able to accrue at some Grand Prix events, which only helps in figure skating when it comes to generating storylines.
Should the engaging and funny Ashley Wagner even just reach the podium behind Kim and Mao Asada of Japan, the attention from the American media will shift into overdrive. Remember that the U.S. had at least one athlete on the podium in the women’s competition for 11 straight Olympics until the streak was snapped in Vancouver.
Alex Ovechkin has personality plus by hockey standards, and his quest to win gold on home ice will play well internationally.
Sidney Crosby can give boilerplate quotes, but his prowess and legacy as a gold-medal winning goal scorer ensure he'll be in the spotlight.
Finally, there is the unknown factor. Some athlete not currently touted could steal the spotlight with the combination of a sparkling personality and gutsy competition display.
Given the controversy in the run-up to the Sochi Games, there also remains the possibility that in the manner of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics, an athlete who takes a particularly noteworthy stand on gay rights could cause a sensation.
Even with Vonn healthy for half the season in 2012-13, Tina Maze of Slovenia put together one of the most dominant ski seasons of all-time.
Maze struggled to begin this season, but earned silver at the most recent downhill in Val d'Isere.
There is a trio of skiers currently battling for the overall World Cup lead: Maria-Hoefl Riesch of Germany, Lara Gut of Switzerland and Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein.
Closer to home, Vonn's absence certainly can't hurt Canadian Marie-Michèle Gagnon. The skier from Lac-Etchemin, Que., has finished in the top 10 in seven races this season, although she's still waiting to make that next step onto the podium.
While the five aforementioned women’s skiers don't date a world famous golfer and count English as a second (or third) language, they are all quite telegenic and well-spoken.
U.S. alpine team
Lest we forget, Vonn is member of an actual team. For the U.S. alpine group, others will be asked to step up.
Julia Mancuso actually owns one more Olympic medal than Vonn, with three in her career. It has been proven at the past two Winter Games that "Super Jules" can't be counted out despite her slow start this season. She's laid back in interviews, but those wanting a soap opera narrative can draw upon her fairly recent breakup with star skier Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway.
Mikaela Shiffrin could steal more of the spotlight in Sochi. At 18 years old, she's smack dab in the Olympic demographic NBC Sports has been proven to love in the past with gymnastics and figure skating. She is limited by not excelling in the arguably more glamorous speed events, but is now a medal threat in both giant slalom and slalom.
On the men's side, Ted Ligety has the combination of smile and swagger to gain attention, and Bode Miller has a legitimate shot at a sixth career Olympic medal despite missing all of last season.
That would put Miller third on the all-time Olympic list for alpine skiers.
As Vonn drifts out of the Sochi picture, it will be fascinating to watch which of these stars, or others, seize the moment.