There’s a lot to like about Australia heading to Sochi

Date: February 6, 2014 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

The Winter Olympics has nowhere near the profile or level of expectation that we attach to the Summer Games and it is totally understandable – the level of elite competition on our shores is minimal, most of our athletes are based thousands of kilometres away and there has been far less medal success.

However that should not stop Aussie sports fans from taking a close interest in the Sochi Games that kick of this weekend.

In recent Olympiads our winter athletes have increasingly made their presence felt and this time around should be no exception.

We won our first Winter Games medal – a bronze – courtesy of the men’s 5000m short track relay team at Lillehammer in 1994.

Heading into the XXII Winter Olympics Australia has an all-time haul of five gold, one silver and nine bronze medals.

Our two gold and one silver medal at Vancouver placed Australia 13th on the medal table

Having sent 40 athletes to the past two Winter Olympics a record 60 will strut their stuff at Sochi – 31 women and 29 men, making it the first time in Australia’s 118-year history at the Modern Olympics that a team has comprised more men than women.

Forty-three of the team will be making their first appearance at a Winter Games including Jana Pittman, the dual 400m hurdles world champion who will become the first Australian female to compete at both the Summer and Winter Olympics when she teams up with Astrid Radjenovic in the bobsleigh.

Australia has three other names at Sochi that will be familiar to many Australians with three gold medallists returning for another tilt at glory – Torah Bright, the defending champion in the women’s snowboard halfpipe; Lydia Lassila, our most capped Winter Olympian who heads into her fourth Games as the defending champion in the women’s aerials; and Dale Begg-Smith, our most successful Winter Olympian, with a silver in the men’s freestyle moguls at Vancouver and a gold four years earlier at Torino.

Australia’s hottest favourite however for a gold medal is Alex ‘Chumpy’ Pullin who was the snowboard world champion in 2011 and 2013 as well as winning two overall World Cup titles over the past four years.

He was leading the eventual winner of the gold medal when he crashed out of contention in the Olympic final four years ago.

He has gone from strength to strength since then and looms as the man to watch at Sochi.

Bright will have a busy schedule over the next few weeks as she becomes the first snowboarder to compete in three disciplines at the one Winter Games, adding snowboard cross and the new event of slopestyle to her existing gold medal event.

One of her main competitors in her pet event is teammate Holly Crawford who will be competing in her third Winter Olympics. She has won World Cup events on four occasions.

In the men’s halfpipe 23-year-old Nate Johnstone is a strong prospect having been the 2011 world champion.

Lassila arrives at the Games Village full of confidence having won a recent World Cup event, and at 32, the recent mother is once again a very strong medal chance.

She will has some teammates in the women’s aerial events who could also push for the podium –  Danielle Scott claimed silver at the Lake Placid World Cup event last month and Laura Peel has won World Cup gold in the past and finished second at the Sochi test event last year.

Begg-Smith’s lead-in has been anything but conventional as he has been living on Grand Cayman in the Caribbean for the past three years running a business.

He did return to the slopes recently and has posted top-10 finishes without pushing things too hard.

His coach Steve Desovic believes that his charge may have one last significant performance in him at Sochi.

Teaming up with Begg-Smith in the moguls is 19-year-old Matt Graham who is an outside chance for a medal having finished fourth at last year’s World Championships.

In the women’s moguls, Britt Cox is another medal prospect. Four years ago, at 15, she was the youngest competitor at Vancouver from any nation and since then has matured into a world-class performer.

She is Australia’s first female World Cup medallist and has posted some consistent top-six finishes in several lead-in events to Sochi.

Daniel Greig, at 22, is certainly a medal prospect in the traditional speed skating events having won a silver medal in the 500m at the ISU World Sprint Championships held in Japan last month.

Jenny Owens, the veteran of the team at 35, has twice finished second at World Cup events in ski cross, a discipline where experience is important given the sometimes intimidating body contact. She could perhaps threaten the podium at her last attempt.

One of Owens’ fellow competitors in the ski cross, 25-year-old Sami Kennedy-Sim has timed her run into Sochi perfectly with her first finals appearance at a World Cup, finishing fourth at Val Thorens in France last month.

Her story is a fascinating one as she suffered a minor stroke in April last year which forced her away from the sport for many months.

Another great story of determination is that of ski cross competitor Scott Kneller who broke his back late last year.

He reached the semi-finals at Vancouver and has previously won World Cup gold and is a chance of a medal this time around.

So too is his teammate Anton Grimus who has been a medallist at World Cup level –  you cannot miss him as he sports a Ned Kelly-like beard.

Injuries are an ever-present threat in many of the alpine events and Russ Henshaw is no exception having ruptured his ACL in 2011 – his father donated part of his hamstring which helped fast-track his recovery.

He will contest the new ski slopestyle event and as a silver medallist at the 2011 Winter X Games and currently ranked number three in the world is a considerable medal prospect at Sochi as his female counterpart Anna Segal who was crowned world champion in 2011.

Whilst Lassila will command the most Australian interest in the aerial skiing Australia also has a strong prospect in the men’s with former gymnast David Morris now our most successful male in the discipline.

He made the World Cup podium for the first time at Lake Placid in January last year before winning his first World Cup gold medal in Ukraine the following month. He finished the 2012-13 season ranked number two in the world.

Byron Bay raised Amy Sheehan will be looking to build on her two third places in World Cup events last month when she tackles the new discipline of ski halfpipe – the 27-year-old’s  brother Lyndon will turn out in the men’s event representing New Zealand.

All-in-all Australia has some genuine contenders at Sochi and it would not be surprising if we were to post our best performance since we first took to the ice and snow at the 1936 Winter Games at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany.

But, if there is one thing we have learned from the Winter Olympics it is the fact that anything can happen … just ask Steven Bradbury.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 5 February 2014