25 Great Winter Olympians
Last Updated: Jan 30, 2014
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The Winter Olympics have long provided memorable performances, whether by unknown athletes making their mark for the first time or favorites displaying their dominance. As the world turns its attention to Sochi, Russia, in February for the 2014 Olympiad, read on for a list of 25 great Olympians from past Winter Games.
Sonja Henie was just 11 at her first Olympics in 1924, and she finished in last place in a field of 8 skaters. But it was all success after that inglorious start, as the young Norwegian athlete received the gold medal at the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Winter Olympics in women’s figure skating. She was the world champion for 10 consecutive years from 1927 to 1936 and brought innovation to the sport in everything from costumes to choreography. After her competitive career ended in 1936, she moved to Hollywood and became an actress. She also produced and skated in a series of professional ice shows.
Jack Shea was one of the first U.S. Winter Olympic heroes. He began the 1932 games in Lake Placid, New York, by taking the Olympic oath on behalf of all the athletes, just the beginning of a memorable two weeks. His victories in the 500-meter and 1,500-meter speed skating events marked the first time an American had won multiple gold medals in a single Olympiad. Shea gave up his chance to repeat the feat in 1936 because that year’s Olympic Games took place in Hitler’s Germany. In later years, his son and grandson continued the family tradition by representing the United States in the Olympics, in cross-country skiing and men’s skeleton sledding respectively.
American Gretchen Fraser’s early chances to compete in the Olympic Games were dashed when the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were canceled because of World War II. She spent those years helping to rehabilitate injured veterans in Sun Valley, Idaho. After the war, however, she got the opportunity to prove herself in the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. At 28, she took the gold in women’s slalom and silver in the women’s alpine combined. Those games marked the end of her competitive career.
Dick Button won Olympic gold in men’s figure skating at the St. Moritz games in 1948 and the Oslo Games in 1952. The American is considered to be the first skater to land a double axel and a triple jump in competition. He also created a new jump, a flying camel spin. He began commentating on Olympic figure skating with the 1960 Olympics and has remained a prominent voice in figure skating for more than half a century.
U.S. OLYMPIC HOCKEY TEAM
They may not be as famous as the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” squad, but the 1960 U.S. men’s hockey team's gold medal was just as unlikely. The team was not considered one of the favorites heading into Squaw Valley, California Olympics, but they went undefeated in the medal round, knocking off Canada, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Sweden and Germany. Herb Brooks, one of the final cuts from the squad, went on to coach the 1980 U.S. Olympic squad, and forward Bill Christian got to see his son Dave win the gold on the 1980 team.
Peggy Fleming’s gold medal in the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France, came at an opportune time for winter sports in the United States. Her victory marked the only gold the Americans won at the 1968 games. Moreover, it signaled that the figure skating squad was ready to return to its prominent place on the world stage, after the entire national team was killed in a plane crash heading to the 1961 World Championships. Fleming was the U.S. national champion from 1964 to 1968 and the world champion from 1966 to 1968.
Jean-Claude Killy’s performance at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble was one for the ages. He swept all three alpine skiing events, winning gold in the alpine, slalom and giant slalom. There was controversy, however. The Frenchman's rival, Austrian Karl Schranz, alleged that someone had crossed his path while he was competing in one event and was granted a rerun. Schranz was declared the victor until a jury ruled that a missed gate on the initial run disqualified him. Killy turned professional after the 1968 games but stayed involved in the Olympic movement. He has been a member of the International Olympic Committee since 1995 and chaired the coordination commission for the 2014 Sochi games.
Dorothy Hamill won women’s figure skating gold for the U.S. in 1976, her first international championship. Though she was in second place after the figures portion of the competition, she won the long and short programs to take control. She is credited with developing the Hamill Camel, a camel spin that finishes in a sit spin. Hamill was the last skater to win a gold medal at the Olympics without landing a triple jump. She turned professional after the 1976 World Championships, skating with the Ice Capades and eventually becoming its owner.
Franz Klammer dominated alpine skiing in the mid-1970s. His signature win was his gold-medal performance in the 1976 downhill at the Innsbruck Winter Olympics. The Austrian was under heavy pressure to win, since the games were hosted by his home nation, but Switzerland’s Bernhard Russi set a blistering pace in his turn down the mountain. Klammer skied aggressively when his turn came, and it paid off when he won the gold by 0.33 seconds. After retiring from skiing, he decided to participate in a much safer sport: touring car racing.
U.S. MEN'S HOCKEY TEAM
Dubbed the “Miracle on Ice,” this squad captured the gold medal in one of the biggest shockers in the sport’s history, since many doubted the team would even make the medal round. It swept through group play with a 4-0-1 record, earning a tie with Sweden and beating favored Czechoslovakia 7-3. The “miracle” came in the medal round against the Soviet Union, when outstanding goaltending by Jim Craig kept the squad in the game early, and a pair of third-period goals -- including the tie-breaker by team captain Mike Eruzione -- gave the team a 4-3 win. The squad then clinched the gold medal by knocking off Finland, 4-2, the next day.
Many observers believe Eric Heiden had the greatest Winter Olympic Games ever when he dominated the 1980 speed skating events in Lake Placid, N.Y. In a sport where nearly every skater specializes in either the sprint events or distance races, the American won gold in the 500-meter, 1,000-meter, 1,500-meter, 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter events. He set Olympic records in all five races and the world record in the 10,000. After the Olympics, he had a second athletic career as a professional cyclist and later went to medical school and became a physician. He currently serves on the medical staff for the BMC Racing Team.
Scott Hamilton entered the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo on a roll, having won the previous four U.S. men’s figure skating national championships. He met all expectations with a strong performance against a talented field to capture gold. Later he turned professional, first skating with the Ice Capades and later with his own company, Stars on Ice. Hamilton is a member of the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame and maintains a close affiliation with the Olympics and figure skating. He will be providing commentary on figure skating for NBC in Sochi, his seventh games as a member of the broadcast team.
JAYNE TORVILL AND CHRISTOPHER DEAN
After placing fifth in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, British ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean captivated the world at Sarajevo in the 1984 games with a figure skating performance that was possibly the greatest in Olympic history. Their free dance performance, to Ravel’s “Bolero,” received 12 perfect scores, and all 9 judges scored it a 6.0 for artistic impression. The duo turned professional after the games but made an Olympic comeback in 1994, taking a bronze medal in Lillehammer, Norway.
Until Bill Johnson hit the slopes at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, no American male had ever taken a gold medal in a downhill skiing event. In a sport dominated by Europeans, he brashly predicted he’d win gold at the games because the course was set up perfectly for his style of skiing. He made good on that boast with a victory in the downhill. However, his luck changed after these games. Battling injuries, Johnson never won another World Cup downhill event and was left off the 1988 Olympic squad, denied a chance to defend his title.
Katarina Witt won back-to-back gold medals in Sarajevo and Calgary, Canada, serving as the queen of figure skating in 1984 and 1988 and joining Sonja Henie, previously the only woman to successfully defend figure skating gold. Skating for East Germany, she upset reigning world champion Rosalynn Sumners in 1984 and beat Debi Thomas in Calgary in the legendary “Battle of the Carmens” (both skated to music from Bizet's "Carmen"). She made a comeback to skate in the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer for a unified Germany, coming in seventh.
Dan Jansen is the rare Olympic gold medalist remembered as much for his failures as for his successes. His Olympic career in speed skating began with a fourth-place finish in the 500 meters and a 16th-place finish in the 1,000 meters in 1984. The American was a heavy favorite heading into the 1988 Olympics. But his sister died of leukemia the morning of the 500-meter final, and Jansen slipped and fell, later doing the same in the 1,000-meter event. He didn’t win a single medal in the 1992 games, but in the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer he finally won a gold medal and set the world record in the 1,000 meters.
The dean of U.S. women’s speed skating, Bonnie Blair skated in four Winter Olympics in her storied career and medaled in three of them. After finishing in eighth place in Sarajevo in 1984, Blair took gold in the 500 meters and bronze in the 1,000 meters in Calgary. She won both events in Albertville, France, in 1992 and repeated the feat two years later in Lillehammer. She later became the first woman to break the 39-second barrier in the 500 when she finished in 38.64 seconds in Calgary. Her six medals made her the most-decorated U.S. Winter Olympian of all time until Apolo Ohno surpassed her in 2010.
Brian Boitano had a storied skating career as an American amateur and professional figure skater. Most remember him from the “Battle of the Brians” at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Boitano and Canadian rival Brian Orser were close enough heading into the long program that whoever won would come away with the gold medal. Boitano took the gold by finishing first on five of the nine scorecards. His other major impact on the sport came from his successful lobbying to allow professional skaters to apply to compete in future Olympics. Known as the “Boitano Rule,” it helped him make the Olympics again in 1994, where he finished sixth.
Alberto Tomba represented Italy in four Olympics from 1988 to 1998, coming away with five medals, including three gold ones. He burst onto the scene with gold medals in the slalom and giant slalom at the 1988 games in Calgary. In 1992 in Albertville, he successfully defended his title in the giant slalom while picking up a silver in slalom. He won silver in the slalom in the 1994 games in Lillehammer, but a crash in the giant slalom cost him a chance to medal in Nagano, Japan, in 1998. He won 50 World Cup titles over his career, but told CNN that his one regret was retiring “too soon” at age 31.
Picabo Street became one of the most memorable Olympic skiers in history at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. The daughter of a stonemason and a music teacher who put her on the slopes as a 5-year-old, she won attention with her aggressive style of skiing and her TV-friendly personality. She took silver in 1994, then became the first American to win a downhill World Cup season title in 1995 and again in 1996. She took gold in the Super G in 1998 and came back from a major injury to participate in one final Olympics in 2002 in Salt Lake City, Utah. She’ll be attending the 2014 Olympics in Sochi as a broadcaster for Fox Sports.
U.S. WOMEN'S HOCKEY TEAM
Women’s ice hockey made its debut at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and the U.S. squad was ready, sweeping through the six-team round robin with a 5-0 record, including coming back from a 4-1 deficit to knock off arch-rival Canada, 7-4. The team repeated that victory over Canada in the gold-medal game, winning 3-1 behind excellent goaltending by Sarah Tueting. Team captain Cammi Granato was honored for the team’s accomplishments, carrying the U.S. flag at the closing ceremonies. No U.S. squad since those Olympics has been able to match this team’s accomplishments.
JILL BAKKEN AND VONETTA FLOWERS
Women’s bobsled made its Olympic debut at the 2002 games in Salt Lake City, when Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers slipped past a pair of German squads to take the gold medal. Flowers, a seven-time collegiate All-American in track and field, became the first African-American to win gold at a Winter Olympics. She joined the U.S. team in December 2001, replacing Bakken's longtime partner Shauna Rohbock. The duo also became the first Americans to win a medal in bobsled since 1952. Flowers went on to finish in sixth place paired with Jean Prahm at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy.
Apolo Ohno took advantage of short-track speed skating’s advancement as a Winter Olympic sport to become the most-decorated U.S. Winter Olympian of all time, though the journey wasn’t always smooth. In 2002, he fell in the 500, took silver in the 1,000 despite a slip, and won gold in the 1,500 meters after the leader was disqualified for blocking in a controversial decision. The 2006 games produced different results: He won the 500, took bronze in the 1,000 and the 5,000-meter relay, but failed to successfully defend his 1,500 title when he fell in the semifinals. Coming back in 2010, he took silver in the 1,500 and bronze in the 1,000 and the 5,000-meter relay. Skating is not his only passion ¬ he won the fourth season of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” and has been involved in numerous philanthropic organizations.
Shaun White is arguably the greatest snowboarder in Olympic history. Known as “The Flying Tomato” for his distinctive red hair, White won gold in the half-pipe in Turin in 2006 and at the 2010 games in Vancouver, Canada. His daring tricks brought him to prominence in a previously obscure sport. He’ll be back on the U.S. team this year, looking to make it three Olympic golds in Sochi, although he has battled injuries in the weeks leading up to the games.
Amy Williams broke a 30-year drought for the British at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver when she took the gold medal in the women’s skeleton. It marked the first gold medal in an individual event for Great Britain in the Winter Olympic Games since Robin Cousins won skating gold in 1980, and the first for a British woman since Jeannette Altwegg won for figure skating in 1952. The victory was controversial, however, as several countries filed protests, arguing that her helmet gave her an unfair advantage. The protests were denied, and Williams, who hadn't won a World Cup race before the Vancouver Olympics, reached the top of the podium by a razor-thin margin of 0.56 seconds.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Do you enjoy watching the Olympics? Will you be watching the Winter Games this year? Which particular sports are you planning to watch? Which athletes have inspired you? Who is your all-time favorite Winter Olympic athlete? And who are you rooting for in the Sochi Olympics? Leave a comment below and let us know.
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