SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 06: Bode Miller of the United States skis during training for the Alpine Skiing Men's Downhill ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Rosa Khutor Alpine Center on February 6, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 06: Bode Miller of the United States skis during training for the Alpine Skiing Men's Downhill ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Rosa Khutor Alpine Center on February 6, 2014 in Sochi, Russia; Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 06: Bode Miller of the United States skis during training for the Alpine Skiing Men's Downhill ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Rosa Khutor Alpine Center on February 6, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Sochi Olympics: Alpine Skiing Preview

Vermont-based writer Christian Camerota will be writing about the Sochi Olympics throughout the Games. Follow his coverage.

Between the beauty at the top of the mountain and the glory that lies at the bottom, that’s where ski racers are made.

The pros make alpine skiing look easy. Tucks and turns and times, and that’s it. But for a reminder of how much professional skiers put on the line when they drop out of the gate, look on YouTube for Hermann Maier’s spectacular 1998 Nagano crash, where he caught an edge at 70 mph and flew some 50 yards staring up at the sky before pinwheeling through both protective barriers and coming to rest face down and limp in the snow. Now, for some perspective on just how tough skiers are, remember Maier won two gold medals days later.

More than 300 athletes across 74 nations will test their turns on Rosa Khtuor, the brand new, imposing venue playing host to the 2014 Olympic alpine events. It will mark the first time nations like Zimbabwe, Togo, Venezuela, and Thailand have ever competed in the sport, while stalwarts Austria (22), Switzerland (21), the U.S. (20), and France and Italy (19 apiece) lead the pack with the most representatives.

Alpine first began in the mid-1800s in Norway and made its first Olympic appearance in 1936 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen with only downhill and slalom events (super-g arrived in 1988). This year’s 150th Games will feature ten total contests—five men’s and five women’s—beginning Sunday, Feb. 9, with the men’s downhill. The full schedule is available here.

The U.S. is missing some of its biggest snow sports stars this year. Shaun White sparked some controversy on Wednesday when he withdrew from the snowboarding slopestyle competition, citing injury and course concerns, and leaving a spot vacant that might otherwise have given another U.S. athlete an Olympic berth. This comes after blonde bomber Lindsey Vonn, a former gold medalist and a superstar in her own right (you may have heard of her boyfriend, Tiger Woods), announced she would miss the Games altogether with a knee injury. But the U.S. ski team is coming off arguably its finest year ever, with 18 World Cup wins amid 33 podium appearances, and will carry significant momentum into the Games. The men’s team is a veteran group led by one of the hottest skiers in the world at the moment, Ted Ligety, and the always-dangerous Bode Miller, who finished with the top time in Thursday’s downhill training run. In Vonn’s absence, the women’s team will look to former gold medalist Julia Mancuso and upstart Michaela Shiffrin.

Here’s a quick look at the four main events and the favorites:

  • Downhill: Featuring the longest course, with speeds topping 80mph, the downhill medal is the class of the alpine skier’s collection. Rosa Khutor’s course is beautiful but punishing, a leg-burner of the highest order, that should play to the balance and power of both Ligety and Mancuso. Reigning Olympic champ Didier Défago of Switzerland should challenge for the top of the podium among the men, and Germany’s Maria Höfl-Riesch will certainly be in the mix for the women.
  • Slalom: With the tightest gates of any event, slalom is all about finesse. Rosa Khutor will add a new wrinkle this year, as the two courses are some of the steepest in recent memory and will require serious speed control. This may be the weakest event for the U.S., where the women haven’t medaled since 1972, but Ligety and Shiffrin give them their best chance. Austria figures to dominate, with Marcel Hirscher and Marlies Schild the class of each field.
  • Giant Slalom: GS is one part slalom and one part super-g, with gate lengths somewhere in between the two. Ligety and Hirscher will contend for the men and Shiffrin and Mancuso (the 2010 gold medalist) will compete against a stacked field for the women.
  • Super-G: The newest of the five events, Super-G has similar gate lengths to giant slalom but will only have one course. Miller will look to better his silver medal in Vancouver, with Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal (the reigning gold medalist) hot on his rear bindings. Two Tinas may find themselves battling for gold on the women’s side: Tina Maze of Slovenia, who took silver in Turin, and Liechtenstien’s Tina Weirather. Mancuso and Leanne Smith might be the best shots at medals for the U.S., especially if Smith can harness her breakaway speed.

Now let’s take a look at the most promising U.S. hopefuls.

  • Bode Miller: After 33 World Cup wins, 36-year-old Bode Miller’s resume speaks for itself. He’s part Alberto Tomba (having admitted to skiing still-drunk at the Torino Games) and part John Muir (he grew up in New Hampshire using an outhouse). Coming off micofracture surgery in 2012, there are some concerns about how Miller will hold up, but he remains a legitimate four-event skier and it would be foolish to count out a man who has proved himself one of the sport’s fiercest and gutsiest competitors. He’ll look to cement his legacy, already a five-time medalist, with a strong finish in what could be his final Olympics.
  • Ted Ligety: He made waves for his flashy goggles and apparel during the last few Winter Games (he owns his own equipment company called Shred Optics), but don’t let that fool you. Ligety is legit. He started skiing at age 2 and, now at 29-years-old, he’s a versatile skier with 21 career World Cup wins and a gold medal on his mantle from the 2006 super combined event. Failing to medal in the 2010 Games should only spark more motivation for Ligety and he’s coming off a blistering season so far in the World Cup. He’s also got one of the best Instagrams going.
  • Julia Mancuso: She may not come with quite the pedigree of a Picabo Street, but Mancuso is the most decorated U.S. women’s skier, with three medals, and will look to step out of Vonn’s shadow for these Games. Or maybe she already has. She won a gold in 2006 in giant slalom, and silver in downhill and combined in 2010, and currently sits fourth in the World Cup standings. Watch for her in the big events.
  • Michaela Shiffrin: At 18-years-old, Shiffrin is one of the youngest athletes in the Games. When you consider she made her World Cup debut at 15, however, you can see how she skis well beyond her years. Shiffrin won the World Cup championship in slalom in 2013 and her balance and precision will serve her well on Sochi’s steep slopes.

Expected to be the most-watched Olympics ever, there will be serious international pressure on the U.S. team to perform on the piste. But with a favorable forecast, one of the largest teams in the field, and more Olympic experience than most past U.S. teams combined, this year’s squad is well-positioned to wind up golden.