The nagging knee injury keeping ski star Lindsey Vonn from competing in Sochi next month is sidelining not only a top contender for a gold medal at the Winter Games, but one of the most famous faces on Team USA.
The four-time world champion and reigning gold medalist in the downhill, widely considered one of the most accomplished female skiers in history, has become a household name on and off the slopes in recent years. The 29-year-old media darling rose to celebrity status as she racked up near-record ski wins, thanks to major endorsement deals, appearances in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and Maxim's Hot 100 list, not to mention her relationship with Tiger Woods.
Replacing Vonn with someone of similar star power is not possible; however, there are a number of athletes who could emerge as athletes to watch in their own right and boost Team USA's medal count during the Games, which begin on Feb. 6. Here are five to keep an eye on.
1. Mikaela Shiffrin, Alpine skiing
- The comparisons with Vonn have already surfaced thanks to Shiffrin's early feats, but they are premature. Still, this 18-year old, who is the reigning World Cup champion and World Champion in slalom, could emerge from Sochi as a two-time medal winner and a teenage Olympic sensation. Her meteoric rise has already made her a celebrity in ski-crazed Austria and drawn praise from slope veterans. Olympic champ Picabo Street told USA Today she believes Shiffrin "has the ability to win just as much if not more" than Vonn, while ski star Bode Miller calls her a "phenom."
2. Arielle Gold, snowboarding
- At just 16, Gold is an even younger up-and-comer for Team USA than Shiffrin. After bursting onto the snowboarding scene with two silver medal finishes at the inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games in 2012, the Steamboat Springs native took 2013 by storm by winning gold in the halfpipe at the FIS Snowboarding World Championships and bronze in the Super SuperPipe at the Winter X Games. Competing on the world stage in Sochi will be the high school junior's biggest test yet.
3. Ashley Wagner, figure skating.
- The two-time defending U.S. Champion has a Sochi spot nearly locked up after falling short of the Olympics in 2010. Her performance at the upcoming U.S. Championships will determine her fate, but she is widely expected to compete in Sochi and contend for a medal. Wagner, who gave herself the nickname "almost girl," after a streak of falling short in her championship endeavors, is now approaching near Vonn-level attention from national advertisers, inking endorsement deals with major brands like Cover Girl, Nike, Pandora and P&G.
4. Ted Ligety, Alpine skiing
- Hardly a newcomer, the Utah native known as "Shred" burst onto the scene with a surprise gold medal at the 2006 Games in Torino, but then struggled four years later in Vancouver. After a remarkable season last year, including three world titles, Ligety could lift himself to new heights in Sochi. The spunky skier has taken time to cultivate a personal brand as well, starting a line of accessories for the mountain that he designs himself.
5. Gracie Gold, figure skating
- She hasn't made the Olympic team yet, but her name and recent performances indicate she will be competing in Sochi. The Chicago-area native wouldn't be favored for a medal but a strong performance is expected. The 18-year-old came finished just two points behind Wagner to earn a spot in the top 10 at the 2013 World Championships and recently signed on to train with Frank Carroll, coach to 2010 Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek.