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2014 Winter Olympics Preview: Alpine Skiing

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(Sports Network) - When the alpine skiing competition gets underway at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, the United States will head to the slopes without its biggest star.

Lindsey Vonn has battled knee injuries since a horrific crash at the 2013 World Championships in Schladming, Austria and those issues ultimately led the American skiing sensation to withdraw her name from consideration for this year's Winter Games in Russia.

Four years ago in Vancouver, Vonn became the first American woman to win Olympic gold in the downhill, a medal she won't get a chance to defend in February at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Resort. Vonn also claimed bronze in the super-G at the Vancouver Olympics.

Both the men and women compete for medals in five disciplines at the Winter Games: the downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom and combined.

Although their most notable skier is not available for Sochi, the Vonn-less Americans still expect to have medal opportunities at the 2014 Games. In the absence of Vonn the biggest U.S. name on the women's side is Julia Mancuso, winner of three total Olympic medals, including two silvers at the Vancouver Olympics.

Mancuso, who won gold in the giant slalom at the 2006 Turin Olympics, placed second to Vonn in the downhill four years ago and also grabbed silver in the combined. She finished the 2013 fourth overall in the World Cup standings and was second in the super-G.

Mikaela Shiffrin also has a better shot at grabbing the spotlight with Vonn out of commission in Sochi. Unlike speedsters Mancuso and Vonn, the 18-year- old excels in the technical skiing events as evidenced by her gold in the slalom at the 2013 World Championships. Shiffrin also won the 2013 season title in the slalom.

At 36 years of age, Bode Miller is back for a chance to gain more Olympic hardware in what will be his fifth Winter Games. The versatile American has claimed a gold, three silvers and a bronze medal in his Olympic career and he had his best showing four years ago at the Vancouver Games. Miller won gold in the super combined in 2010, while taking silver in the super-G and a bronze in the downhill.

Miller will become the oldest American to participate in alpine skiing at this year's Winter Games and the first to compete at five Olympics.

Ted Ligety, a gold medalist for the U.S. in the combined at the 2006 Olympics, could also be in contention for a medal in Sochi. Although he failed to medal in Vancouver, Ligety had a fantastic showing at the 2013 World Championships, winning gold in the giant slalom, super-G and combined to become the first man in 45 years to win three golds at one world championships.

Of course, the American men and women will face stiff competition for medals from a host of international competitors.

Slovenia's Tina Maze is coming off a record-setting 2013 season and she could be poised for breakout stardom in Sochi. Maze won silver in both the super-G and giant slalom at the 2010 Games and she expects to compete in all five disciplines in Sochi.

Maze reached the podium 24 times during the 2013 World Cup season, breaking the record of 22 set by Austrian skiing legend Hermann Maier in 2000. Maze also obliterated the women's record of 18 top-three finishes in one season.

Although overshadowed by Maze, Germany's Maria Hoefl-Riesch also turned in a solid 2013 season, finishing second in the overall standings while placing in the top-10 in four of the five disciplines.

Hoefl-Riesch won two gold medals at the Vancouver Games, taking the combined and slalom events.

On the men's side, Austria's Marcel Hirscher is the top competitor in the technical events, while Aksel Lund Svindal is the biggest threat to the American speedsters.

Hirscher finished 2013 as the top-ranked skier in the world, excelling in the slalom, giant slalom and combined disciplines. Svindal was second overall to Hirscher after completing 2013 as the best in both the downhill and super-G.

CANADIAN OUTLOOK

Canada hopes to snap a 20-year medal drought in alpine skiing at the Sochi Games, with Erik Guay offering the best chance at making the nation's medal dreams a reality.

The Canadians haven't claimed a medal on the slopes since Ed Podivinsky won bronze in the downhill at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. Podivinsky's third-place finish is one of only two all-time Olympic medals for Canada in men's alpine. Steve Podborski also took bronze at the 1980 Olympic in Lake Placid, New York.

Guay's best event is the downhill and he was ranked sixth in the world standings in that discipline in 2013. He recently won gold in downhill at a World Cup event, taking the competition on Dec. 21 in Val Gardena, Italy.

Guay was ranked 18th overall in the 2013 season standings. He'll be joined in Sochi by fellow Canadian men Jan Hudec and Manuel Osborne-Paradis, who were ranked 35th and 43rd, respectively, in the 2013 World Cup standings.

Historically speaking, Canadian women have performed better than the men at the Winter Games, winning all four of the countries gold medals in alpine skiing and eight of the 10 total medals. However, the last Canadian woman to reach the podium in alpine skiing was Kerrin Lee-Gartner, who won gold in the downhill at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France.

Marie-Michele Gagnon gives the Canadian women their best chance at a medal in Sochi after placing 21st in the 2013 season standings.

Brittany Phelan and Larisa Yurkiw will also represent Canada in Sochi, but are considered longshots to win a medal.

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