It’s a strange year to witness the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics just six months after the Summer Olympics, but these are strange times. What’s not strange is seeing these six talented American women achieve greatness. Each has a unique story of how they reached the most acclaimed sporting competition in the world.
The Olympics are a feat that every athlete works their entire life for, and for many, it’s a dream that never comes true. But for these six women, it’s their time to shine. Some will have victories, some may have disappointments, but they all have a chance to make a mark on the world.
The Face of Snowboarding: Chloe Kim
Chloe Kim may be a sweet, baby-faced 21-year-old, but don’t let that fool you. She’s already considered to be the GOAT in women’s snowboarding, and taking a look at her accomplishments thus far, it’s no wonder. After winning Olympic gold in Pyeongchang in 2018 at just 17 years old, Kim has her sights set on her second gold in Beijing. Barring an unlikely disaster, she’s a shoo-in. Kim has been making waves in the sport of snowboarding from a young age, even qualifying for the Sochi Olympics in 2014 at just 13 years old. However, she was prevented from competing because she was two years shy of the minimum age requirement.
Kim makes breaking records look easy. She’s a 6-time X Games gold medalist and the first athlete to hold snowboarding titles in four major events: the Olympics, World Championships, X Games, and Youth Games. She’s the first athlete to win 3 X Games gold medals before the age of 16. At her Olympic debut in Pyeongchang, she became the first woman to earn an Olympic gold medal in snowboarding by becoming the first woman to land back-to-back 1080s. Kim is believed to eclipse snowboarding records, unlike any athlete we’ve seen before. She has a real chance at becoming the first woman to win two Olympic gold medals in snowboarding.
However, the fame and pressure came at a price. After struggling with her mental health, she took a two year break from snowboarding and attended Princeton in 2019. She defended Simone Biles’ decision to take a step away from gymnastics to protect her mental and physical health, which Kim can relate to. Returning to snowboarding in a much better headspace in 2021 has proved wonders, as she’s won every single competition since: two World Cups, two Laax Opens, World Championship, and U.S. Grand Prix. When compared to snowboarding legend Shaun White, Kim has just two fewer victories than White in halfpipe events, despite having 26 fewer starts and being 14 years younger. She will be debuting three new tricks in Beijing, which she says are all upgrades from anything she’s ever done.
Bobsledder and Mother Elana Meyers Taylor
37-year-old American bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor is competing in her fourth Olympic Games in Beijing. She is the only woman to win three Olympic medals in bobsledding for the U.S. She’s earned two silvers and a bronze medal at the Olympics. In the last Winter Olympics, she competed on a torn Achilles tendon and still earned silver. Taylor is ranked No. 1 in the world in both two-man and monobob events. She’ll be competing in the two-women and monobob events, the latter of which is new to the Olympics.
While this may be her fourth Olympic Games, it’s her first as a mother. She gave birth to her son Nico at the start of the pandemic in 2020. Nico was born with Down’s Syndrome and profound bilateral hearing loss. With the aid of cochlear implants, Nico is making great improvements, learning words, and becoming more social. Taylor’s husband and Nico’s father Nic is also an Olympic bobsledder, and this year is an Olympic alternate for the men’s team.
Taylor says that even after facing physical setbacks like severe back pain, lack of access to gyms during the pandemic, and a sense that she didn’t know if she’d want to continue past her 2018 Olympics, her son changed all of that. Nico inspired and motivated Taylor to train for the Beijing Olympics, stating, “After I had him, I knew I wanted to continue and show that it's possible to overcome any adversity and continue pursuing your goals."
While her teammates voted for her to be the flagbearer in the Olympic Opening Ceremony, some more adversity came her way – a Covid-19 diagnosis. Taylor had to be replaced as flag bearer and suddenly her ability to compete in the games was in jeopardy. Thankfully, she persevered, keeping up with training in hotel quarantine and testing negative in time to be cleared to compete. Taylor is in contention for a medal in both of the events she’s competing in. She has the opportunity to win her first gold medal at what is likely her last Olympics. With her son in mind, she’s more motivated than ever.
Mariah Bell Makes History as Oldest Female Olympic Figure Skater Since 1927
If anyone knows anything about patience, it’s Mariah Bell. After competing at the senior level for the past nine years, she finally won her first U.S. National Title. Ninth time’s the charm. The 25-year-old skater became the oldest women’s figure skater to win a national title in 94 years. The last time this happened was when 26-year-old Beatrix Loughran won in 1927. Bell is also the oldest female figure skater to compete in the Olympics since Loughran. This will be her first Olympic games, and it was a long road to get here. Bell, on her motivation for competing, has said, “I just want people to know that if you have a dream and you want to chase it, there truly is no expiration date on that.”
Bell has been skating since she was 3 years old and credits her parents for never pressuring her or her sister (who is also a figure skater) for her unwavering love of the sport. Bell has been so close to clinching the top spot in U.S. Nationals for years, but it was always just out of reach. She came in third in 2017, dropped to fifth in 2018, placed third in 2019. Bell described what felt like the highest moment of her life in 2020, when she got engaged and achieved a career-best of second place at Nationals, followed by a low point – her engagement being broken off and placing fifth at Nationals in 2021.
“In the summer, I was kind of hit with the end of this relationship I did not see coming. And I felt lost, and I was broken for a little bit, and I decided that this was something that I was completely capable of, and I wasn’t going to let this dream slip away,” Bell said, on what drove her to finally clinch the top spot in January. In 2019, her coach Rafael Arutyunyan had suggested that Bell reach out to former Olympic skater Adam Rippon for help after telling her that she was disorganized and that Rippon could also coach her.
The two hit it off, and Rippon helped choreograph all of Bell's short programs in this Olympic cycle. He helped her attain her career goal of winning a national title and qualifying for the Olympic team. Rippon's coaching style was tough but productive, as he'd make her do a million more things than she was used to in practice.
As far as what Bell thinks about her age, while others are obsessed with talking about it, she says it doesn’t matter to her nearly as much as it does to everyone else. "The culture of skating is so young. At 15-16, you're pretty much almost on your way out in a lot of ways. I love that it's such a topic because, for me, it's just not. It's not a topic of conversation. Who cares? I'm 25. I was talking with my coach Adam, and I was like being 25 is like my superpower. It's brought up a lot because there is a stigma around age,” Bell said.
U.S Women’s Figure Skating’s Youngest Skater, Alysa Liu
Alysa Liu started skating when she was 5 years old, and her career as a competitive figure skater kicked off at an accelerated speed. In 2019, she won her first national championship, becoming the youngest woman to win a U.S. National Figure Skating Competition at 13 years old. She broke the previous record held by Tara Lipinski in 1997. She won again the next year, setting another record – the youngest woman to win two national titles by the age of 14. She was not yet old enough to compete internationally.
While she was the favorite to win gold again in 2022, a Covid-19 diagnosis forced her to withdraw from the national competition. It was while she was quarantining in her hotel room that she nervously awaited her Olympic fate. Liu was in third place in the short program when she contracted Covid-19 and had to withdraw. Thankfully, she still earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Liu is the youngest member on the U.S. team, at just 16 years old.
Liu is no stranger to setting records, especially when it comes to competition and high stakes. At 13 years old, she became the first woman to land two triple axels in a free skate. She was also the first female figure skater to land a triple axel and a quadruple jump in the same program. Actually, this is a 2-in-1 record, as she's the only American woman to ever land a quadruple jump in competition. The triple axel makes her the youngest skater in history to land a triple axel in international competition as well as the third American woman to ever land it.
Liu has had to adjust to her body changing quite a lot in a short time frame. From 2019-2020 she grew 5 inches, from 4’7” to 5’. Recognizing the importance of a young athlete's mental health, her father ensures that she sees a therapist who is provided by U.S. figure skating, stating, "It's important that she has that outlet and that she can be happy." Liu’s father, Chinese-American immigrant Arthur Liu, who fathered Alysa and his other four children through anonymous egg donors and a surrogate mother, was a fan of Michelle Kwan, which motivated him to get his daughter to give figure skating a go, and even had her coached by Laura Lipetsky, who coached Kwan.
When asked by a reporter about whether or not she feels pressure being so young and having so much attention on her, Liu responded, "I don't care too much what other people think of me, but yeah, I think that really relieves some of the pressure because I know I'm doing it for myself and only myself so that really helps.” While Liu’s ultimate goal for the 2022 Beijing Olympics is just to have fun, she’s also gunning to be the first American woman since Sarah Hughes 20 years ago to win gold in Women’s Figure Skating.
The Perseverance of Figure Skater Karen Chen
22-year-old Karen Chen has a condition known as spondylolisthesis. The skater, who wrote a memoir back in 2017 called Finding the Edge: My Life on the Ice, discussed the condition, which she says entails her lower vertebrae sometimes slipping forward and backward because of the bones being cracked. "Sometimes it is hard for me that if I push through the pain, it might get worse, and I’ll set myself back. It was hurting to walk. It should have been a red flag. If it hurts to walk, I don’t think I can skate and do triples,” Chen said, discussing the painful condition.
Though doctors advised her that she needed to avoid arching her back, it was unavoidable in skating, and she refused to give up. Chen came up with a compromise to keep competing and persevere through the pain. By prioritizing pilates and core stability, she's been able to build her core strength so the vertebrae are less likely to slip.
Chen competed in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and placed 11th. She was disappointed with her performance, which drove her to redeem herself. She won silver at the U.S. Figure Skating Nationals in January and qualified for the Olympic team. While some figure skaters are known for landing certain jumps, Chen's artistry in her routines is her signature. She often scores much higher on execution due to her pristine footwork on spins, spirals, and jumping passes.
She has struggled with inconsistency over her career but is known for her figure skating style that stands out for its dance elements that are perfectly in sync with her music selection. These ups and downs in her skating programs may have been related to issues she had with the boots of her skates that would cause her to suffer from knee pain. Talking about her struggle with consistency, Chen said, "I went through a lot of obstacles, particularly with boot problems that resulted in injuries. I'm happy I got most of it resolved, and I'm feeling good again. I guess I've just learned from all my past mistakes. Hopefully, I'll keep improving."
Since she's addressed the issue with custom boots, things have gone uphill for the skater. She emerged as the figure skater to watch in 2017, when she won gold at the U.S. National Championship, with a record score of 72.85 in the short program. That same year, she placed fourth at the World Championships. Chen won silver in January at the 2022 U.S. Nationals, just 2.4 points shy of gold. At the time of writing this, Chen has just won her first Olympic medal – a silver in the Team Figure Skating event.
The Incredible Career of Alpine Skier Mikaela Shiffrin
Mikaela Shiffrin is the top female slalom skier ever. Ever since her World Cup debut at just 15 years old, she's been dominating the sport and breaking all of the records of any female skier by miles. She became the youngest competitor to ever claim a national title at 15 when she won the U.S. National Championships for the slalom title. The records just keep going from here. She became the first non-European skier to win four World Cup slalom races within one season in 2013. At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, she became the youngest person to earn a gold medal in the history of Olympic Alpine Skiing, at 18 years old.
Shiffrin has three Olympic medals (two gold and one bronze), three World Cup overall titles, and six World Championship golds. More than just the best female alpine skier, she's one of the best Alpine skiers, male or female, in history. Some of her accomplishments include earning 11 World Championship medals, 73 World Cup victories, and being a three-time overall World Cup champion. In January, Shiffrin surpassed Petra Vlhova to become the first skier in World Cup history to win 47 slalom titles. Shiffrin has been a skiing prodigy since she was a child and even wrote in her diary as a little girl "I want to be the best skier in the world."
Shiffrin is competing in her third Olympics in Beijing and just needs to earn one medal to tie with Julia Mancuso as the most decorated Olympic female ski racer in American history. If she's able to earn three, then she will also tie the record for the most decorated American on the slopes. Hoping to compete in five individual disciplines at the Olympics, an unexpected and shocking crash in her first race left her with a DNF (Did Not Finish). However, she still has four other events that she can compete in.
Leading up to the Olympic Games, Shiffrin has talked about how she has changed her approach to the pressure. Shiffrin, like Simone Biles, is always expected to win. She made these comments in response to Biles' discussion about the pressure of winning: "It wouldn't have been a 'disappointment’; people just didn't even consider it a possibility. And what I know from that kind of pressure is: it is not easy to win. Ever."
Shiffrin has discussed how she no longer wants to measure her success by how many medals she wins, saying, "My goal is still to go and win gold medals. That's still my goal. But I could walk away from the Games without any medals and still feel like they were successful if I know I've raced my best. Alpine skiing is a sport where so many things are out of control, the weather is such a variable." While Shiffrin no longer measures her worth in medals, she still has a great shot at earning more in Beijing.
A common theme popping up in athletic conversations in the past year is the prioritization of mental health, knowing when to step away, and having a sense of self-worth that is not dependent upon medals, podiums, or titles. It’s a difficult balancing act for an elite athlete to walk – the desire to be the best in the world without all the added pressure. For some, this is their first Olympics, and for others, it’s their chance at redemption after a past disappointment.
Most of us will never know what it’s like to have our entire life’s work judged on what’s sometimes a single event – a blip in your life. Whether these women finish on the podium or not, what many of these athletes have achieved is even more valuable – a sort of athletic enlightenment. Athletes face significant criticism when they underperform what’s expected of them, but as the adage goes, “There is only one way to avoid criticism; do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”
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