US looks to build on 2010 success

Thursday marks one year until the beginning of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and for 22-year-old aspiring American Olympic figure skater Ross Miner, here’s what that means:

He wakes up every day at 6:25 a.m., grabs a breakfast of Kashi cereal, milk, yogurt, strawberries and coffee, then gets to his rink at the Skating Club of Boston at 7:45 a.m. He does 40 minutes of cardio to get ready for the day. He listens to a progressive relaxation tape from a sports psychologist, working him through tensing and relaxing every muscle in his body.

Skates are on at 9 a.m., and by 9:10 he begins the day’s first one-hour skate, practicing his long program: speeding down a slippery surface at 20 mph, jumping in the air and rotating four times, landing on one foot on an eighth-inch of steel, and doing similar jumps eight times in one program.

Miner gets an hour break (if spinning on an exercise bike counts as a break) before an hour back on the ice to work on his short program, doing moves such as a triple Lutz or a quadruple Salchow. At 1 p.m. comes his third one-hour skate of the day.

That’s followed by the final workout of the day, a flexibility workout such as Pilates or a yoga-like system called gyrotonics. Miner’s not done yet: an hour or so in massage or physical therapy or with a sports psychologist.

Home by 6 p.m., asleep by 10, back at it the next day.

So, America, take heart: With Olympians such as Miner devoting their lives to their crafts, the USA might be able to best or at least match its record-breaking 2010 Winter Olympics.

Because athletic greatness won’t just appear out of nowhere starting on Feb. 7, 2014, in the Russian resort city on the Black Sea. It’s the culmination of four years of training since the Vancouver Games.

For the United States Olympic Committee, it’s the culmination of a decade-plus program of focusing more on Winter Olympic sports. For athletes such as Miner, it’s the culmination of a life that’s been dedicated to his sport since he discovered figure skating at age 5 in Vermont and then moved with his family at age 12 to Boston to train with the best in the world.

“Once you get to competition, you’re cooked,” Miner said. “You just got to put it on the plate and send it out there.”

What happened four years ago in Vancouver was nothing short of America’s best Winter Games ever. The United States shoved the pre-Olympic boasts of the host country aside and won the medal count. The unprecedented 37 medals won by the United States seemed to come out of nowhere — it was the first time America had won the Winter Olympic medal count since the 1932 Lake Placid Games — but in reality it was the culmination of a project that began when the United States bottomed out at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.

In 1998, the United States won a disappointing 13 medals, six of them gold. That spurred the USOC and national sport-governing bodies into action, increasing spending in certain sports to better perform on the medal stand. After significant increases in winter-sport funding heading into the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, the United States performed far better, winning 34 medals, 10 of them gold, good for third place. The United States won 25 medals in Turin, Italy, in 2006, nine of them gold, good for second place.

If there was a difference-maker in 2010 that vaulted the United States to the top in total medals and third place in gold medals with nine, it was the Alpine ski team. A disappointing showing in 2006 was reversed by America’s most successful Winter Olympics ever in Alpine skiing, winning eight medals. Lindsey Vonn won gold in women’s downhill, America’s first; Bode Miller won gold in super combined as well as a silver in Super-G and a bronze in downhill, becoming the most decorated Alpine skier in U.S. history.

More medals on the mountain helped, as the United States also won five medals in snowboarding and four in Nordic combined, the top three medal-winning sports for the United States. Other US highlights in 2010 came from Apolo Ohno, who won three medals in short-track speed skating and became America’s most decorated Winter Olympian in history, and Evan Lysacek, who won gold in figure skating, the first US male to do so in 22 years.

The question now, one year out from Sochi: How can the United States hope to compete with its own results from 2010?

In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, Alan Ashley, the chief of sport performance for the USOC, was optimistic.

“I’m really excited about the way we’re working with each of the national federations,” he said. "[The USOC will] try to help them refine their plans and make sure they have the resources to work their athletes, so we can come here [to Sochi] and have the same kind of results we had in Vancouver.”

That’s obviously far easier said than done. Top of the mind this week is what will happen to Vonn, who tore two ligaments in her right knee and broke a bone in her leg in a horrific crash Tuesday at the world championships in Austria.

She said she plans to compete in Sochi, but measuring up to the world’s best a year after such an injury seems like a Herculean task. Also planning a comeback is Lysacek, who won the 13th figure-skating gold medal in U.S. history in 2010 but has struggled with a groin injury in the past year. Ohno has not yet said whether he’ll compete in Sochi.

“A year out, this time of year is the most important time going into the Olympics, because it really establishes where everybody’s place is,” said David Raith,  executive director of United States Figure Skating.

If you’re looking for who might be the next Olympic darling, like gymnast Gabby Douglas in London this past summer, look no further than women’s figure skating. The United States won three of four gold medals in women’s figure skating between 1992 and 2002, with each of those medalists becoming national sweethearts: Kristi Yamaguchi, Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes.

But the US won silver in 2006 and didn’t place in Vancouver. A better understanding of America’s chances in Sochi should come in mid-March, when the pre-Olympic barometer of the world championships takes place in London, Canada. The crown of America’s figure skating darling ought to be worn either by 21-year-old Ashley Wagner, the current US champion, or up-and-coming 17-year-old skater Gracie Gold, who finished second in nationals — and blew away her competition in the free skate.

Again in 2014, the United States — despite Vonn’s injury — ought to be strong on the mountain, which makes up about half of all Winter Olympic events. In Nordic sports, where the United States traditionally has not been strong, Americans will compete for medals in 2014 in sports like women’s ski jumping, Nordic combined and cross country events. Miller is planning to come back after knee issues; snowboarder Shaun White is planning to compete in 2014 again, too (even adding a new event, slope-style, to the half-pipe event he’s won the past two Olympics). Of the 17 Americans who won medals in ski and snowboard events in 2010, all but two plan to return in 2014.

For the United States to top its 2010 medal tally, it will require hard work, good planning and, frankly, a decent amount of luck.

For Miner, the figure skating Olympic hopeful, it’s not something that looms over his head every day. Some people get “five-ring fever” he said — obsessing over the next Olympics years before the opening ceremony. That’s not Miner. He wants to make the Olympics. He’d do anything to medal. But just knowing what he does on a daily basis is a reward.

“Being an Olympic hopeful, it’s a lot of hard work,” he said. “There are a lot of us out there, and at most three guys will make team. Everyone’s working their butt off to do it. Yes, I’d love to make the Olympic team. That’s definitely a goal of mine. But God forbid that not happen, I’ve achieved stuff I’d never thought of.”

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