The largest Canadian team ever at an Olympic Winter Games - 221 athletes - will be competing in Sochi. Canada's 26 medals was good for third place in the overall medal race at the Vancouver Olympics. The goal four years later is to prove that Canada can be the best nation in the world in winter sport. Here is a look at some of the Canadian athletes to watch as they go for gold.
Kaillie Humphries, Bobsleigh
The definition of dominance? Driver Kaillie Humphries of Calgary had a streak of 15 consecutive podium finishes in the two-woman bobsleigh before it was snapped last Dec. 7, in Utah, where she finished seventh. She counted 11 victories during the streak, including two world championship titles.
Humphries wasn’t down for long. The 28-year-old regained the top of the podium a week later in Lake Placid, N.Y., even though her long-time brakewoman, Heather Moyse of Summerside, PEI, was nursing a sore back and was unable to train for several days before the event.
The dynamic duo captured the overall World Cup bobsleigh title in Germany last weekend to serve notice they are ready to defend their Olympic title in Sochi. After the Vancouver Games, Moyse took a break from the sport, but in 2013 she was reunited with Humphries, and the pair immediately resumed their winning ways.
“When Heather came back … everything just felt so comfortable right away and I have nothing to worry about,” Humphries said. They expect a stiff challenge in Sochi from Sandra Kiriasis, the veteran German driver, as well as from Elana Meyers from the United States.
Alex Gough, Luge
Since then, Gough has emerged as one of the top sliders in a luge world dominated by Germans. In 2011, Gough became the first Canadian luger to win a World Cup race, in Paramonovo, Russia. Her victory ended Germany’s 105-race winning streak on the World Cup circuit.
More recently, Gough won a silver medal in Altenberg, Germany, on Jan. 19. But Germany’s Natalie Geisenberger, who has captured the overall World Cup title the past two seasons, is the overwhelming favourite at Sochi, followed by teammate Tatjana Hufner, who earned Olympic gold four years ago.
The mixed-relay competition will debut in Sochi, and Gough will be joined by Calgary’s Sam Edney, a veteran who came fifth at the 2013 World Championships. Two other Calgary natives, Tristan Walker and Justin Snith, will form the doubles component on the team.
Rosalind Groenewoud, Freestyle skiing
The 24-year-old Calgary native suffered a setback in early December when she injured her left knee in training during a Dew Tour stop in Colorado. Arthroscopic surgery took place on Dec. 17 and, since she was already in the hospital, Groenewoud told the surgeon he might as well clear up some issues she was also having in her right knee. Her doctor predicted it would take four to six weeks to fully recover.
Groenewoud has resumed training since her double surgery, but opted not to compete in a mid-January Grand Prix event in Utah, not wanting to push things too soon.
“I’m still feeling really good about the Olympics and my chances there,” she said during a recent telephone conference call with reporters.
Although a medal contender, Groenewoud would need a career performance to defeat Swiss freestyle skier Virginie Faivre, the reigning FIS world champion, who is regarded as the favourite.
Kaya Turski, Slopestyle skiing
A torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee, suffered while training in August, kept 25-year-old Kaya Turski sidelined for five months, but she returned with a bang in January.
In her first competition since her injury, the Montreal native finished a surprising third in the women’s slopestyle at the U.S. Grand Prix to solidify her spot on the Canadian Olympic team.
Turski continued her impressive comeback, capturing her fourth Winter X Games gold medal to serve notice she will be tough to topple from the top of the podium in Sochi. It is expected that Turski’s biggest challenge in slopestyle at Sochi will be from Dara Howell, her Canadian teammate.
Alexandre Bilodeau, Freestyle skiing
At 26, moguls specialist Alexandre Bilodeau is heading to his third and final Olympics as the defending men’s champion.
“I am ready to hit the slopes of Russia and show the world why Canada is a force to be reckoned with,” Bilodeau said.
He’s right: The Canadian freestyle team is loaded with talent. Bilodeau is expected to duke it out with countryman Mikaël Kingsbury for the top of the podium. Bilodeau won Canada’s first gold medal at Vancouver in 2012, and he captured the hearts of Canadians when he dedicated his victory to his brother Frederic, who has cerebral palsy.
“I’ve done everything in my power to be ready for these Olympics, and after that we’ll have other goals in life and we’ll move on,” he said. “But it’s been an amazing journey.”
Justine Dufour-Lapointe, Moguls skiing
Dufour-Lapointe, a Montreal native, is currently rated the best of the trio and is ranked second in the World Cup standings, one spot ahead of sister Chloe. Justine, who finished third at the World Championships in Norway last March, is chasing Hannah Kearney of the United States, who’s No. 1 in the World Cup standings.
Christopher Del Bosco, Ski cross
The 31-year-old, who currently lives in Sudbury, Ont., had an Olympic bronze medal sown up in ski-cross approaching the finish line in Vancouver in 2010. Rather than play it safe, Del Bosco tried to make a pass on the second-last jump, lost control and crashed. He would finish fourth.
Del Bosco has remained hungry for that Olympic medal ever since, and he had an agonizing wait before finally being added to the team by the Canadian Olympic Committee on Jan. 27, along with Dave Duncan and Brady Leman.
“All three of us on the men’s team are heading into Sochi looking for redemption,” said Del Bosco. “We all feel like we have a second chance.”
Marielle Thompson, Ski cross
In 2012, Thompson became the first Canadian to win an individual World Cup Crystal Globe in ski-cross after a breakout season in which she won six of 10 World Cup races. Renowned for her strong starts, Thompson won silver at the 2013 World Championships and was leading the World Cup overall standing after a win in France on Jan. 17.
“I don’t know if it’s really hit me yet,” she said of qualifying for her first Olympics. “I don’t even know. It’s just super wild that I can represent Canada at the Olympics.”
World champion Fanny Smith from Switzerland is favoured to win gold.
Dara Howell, Slopestyle skiing
Howell won gold at a pre-Olympic Grand Prix event in Colorado in December, and was fourth at the Winter X Games this past weekend in Aspen.
It is anticipated that Howell will challenge Tiril Sjastad Christiansen of Norway the gold medal favourite in Sochi.
Travis Gerrits, Aerials skiing
At 22, he’s the youngest member of the Canadian aerials team, yet Gerrits could contend for a bronze medal in Sochi. He has certainly set his sights higher after winning his first World Cup aerials gold last month in Beijing.
Maxence Parrot, Snowboard slopestyle
To win, Parrot completed back-to-back “triple corks” for the first time in competition, as well as another first, a “hard way backside 450” off a rail feature.
The gold in slopestyle came after a gold in the big air contest, definitively announcing to the snowboard world that the 19-year-old from Bromont, Que., is a top contender for gold in Sochi.
It also validated Parrot’s independent instincts, having trained the past year on his own with his own coaches instead of through the national Canada Snowboard organization.
Mark McMorris, Snowboard slopestyle
By age 15 in 2009, McMorris reached the slopestyle finals at the prestigious Burton U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships. Big-time sponsorships from Burton Snowboards and Red Bull followed, and McMorris delivered, winning back-to-back golds in slopestyle at Winter X Games in 2012 and 2013.
His fame grew: He was nominated as best male action sport athlete of the year at ESPN’s 2013 Espy Awards, and a month before the Sochi Olympics, McMorris was on the cover of Transworld Snowboarding magazine with the headline: “Unbeatable?”
Then he did get beat, by countryman Maxence Parrot at last month’s X Games. On his final run, McMorris broke his rib when he crashed on a rail feature. He forges on to Sochi in “great spirits” after the injury, and is confident as he pushes toward an Olympics showdown.
Sebastien Toutant, Snowboard slopestyle
Like Mark McMorris, Toutant will head to Sochi battling injury. The native of L’Assomption, Que., crashed in training in the week leading up to this year’s Winter X Games, badly bruising his ribs.
Despite the travails, Toutant remains a serious contender in Sochi.
Spencer O’Brien, snowboard slopestyle
She has, like most athletes, come through injuries, competing injured all through last season before surgery on her left wrist. She has won four medals in various X Games since 2008, and she is also the reigning world champion.
“X Games is the best preparation for the Olympics,” she said in an interview in January. “Forever, it was our Olympics. It was the pinnacle for us.”
Dominique Maltais, Snowboard-cross
In 2006, she won bronze at the Turin Winter Olympics, the same season she won her first Crystal Globe for being the top racer on the World Cup circuit. She won three more Crystal Globes between 2011 and 2013, which makes her the favourite to finally win an Olympic gold in Sochi.
It would be redemption for Maltais, a 33-year-old from Petite-Rivière-Saint-François, Que. In 2010, Maltais crashed in her final training run – “almost killed myself,” in her words. Another hurdle emerged recently at Winter X Games, where she tweaked her knee and withdrew.
“My knee is good,” she said on Twitter afterward. “No worries guys!” Maltais soldiers on.
Maëlle Ricker, Snowboard-cross
Then a knee injury kept her out of the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. She had turned her attention to snowboard-cross racing, and by the Vancouver Games, Ricker was the No. 3 qualifier.
She won her quarter-final and semi-final, and in the race for gold, she surged to a big early lead and claimed victory. For Ricker, the win was made more sweet by the fact it was at Vancouver, so close to her hometown of Whistler.
Now 35 and barely days from competing in Sochi, her medal hopes are in question because of a wrist injury that required surgery earlier this week. Based on history, though, it would be unwise to count Ricker out.
Charles Hamelin, Short-track speed skating
About 30 minutes after the completion of that race, the 29-year-old native of Sainte-Julie, Que., was back on the oval for the 5,000-m relay final in which he helped lift Canada to another gold medal. And it truly was a family affair for Hamelin in Vancouver, with his younger brother, François, on the podium with him as a member of the victorious Canadian relay squad. Hamelin’s long-time partner, Marianne St-Gelais, of Saint-Félicien, Que., picked up two short-track silvers, and his father, Yves, is Canada’s short-track program director.
Hamelin is hoping to continue that success in Sochi, where he is a medal threat at 1,000 m and 1,500 m as well as in the 5,000-m relay.
“When you start to win medals, you forget about all the hours and hours of training,” he said. “Our goal since 2010 has been to become even better athletes by the time Sochi comes around. I am in top form right now and I really believe I can do it.”
Yves Hamelin says Canada’s short-track team is poised for another strong Olympics. “They’re healthier, they’re stronger,” he said.
Olivier Jean of Repentigny, Que., who was also a member of the 2010 squad, Michael Gilday, 27, of Yellowknife, and Charle Cournoyer, 22, of Longueuil, Que., round out the team.
Christine Nesbitt, Women’s speed skating
The summer after winning Olympic gold in the women’s 1,000 metres in Vancouver, Nesbitt broke her arm after being struck by a car while training in Calgary. Despite that setback, she went on to dominate international speed skating for two more years. But while preparing for Sochi, the 28-year-old has been slowed by health problems caused, doctors said, by Celiac disease, or gluten intolerance.
Nesbitt kicked off the World Cup season in November expecting to rebound quickly, but her times were sluggish compared with her previous standards. So the skater from London, Ont., who remains a contender for the podium in the 1,000-m and 1,500-m races in Sochi, took drastic measures, pulling herself off the World Cup circuit to concentrate on training at home in Canada.
“I kind of think it was a good thing that I had a rough fall,” Nesbitt said in a recent interview. “I’m not going in as a reigning world champion this time, but that’s okay. I know that I’m still a contender.”
Standing between Nesbitt and a repeat gold medal in the 1,000-m race will be Americans Heather Richardson and Brittany Bowe. Dutch skater Irene Wust, a familiar foe of Nesbitt’s throughout her career, is the woman to beat in the 1,500.
Team pursuit speed skating
Canada isn’t as highly touted now as it was four years ago: The women have the best chance in Sochi, with a team of four (three skaters and a spare) that is made up of Christine Nesbitt of London, Ont.; Brittany Schussler of Winnipeg; Kali Christ of Regina; and Ivanie Blondin of Ottawa. The women are rated third on the World Cup circuit this year, behind the Netherlands and Poland.
“We’re in a really good spot right now,” Schussler said. “We are a little bit more under the radar.”
The men’s team will have the same core that won gold in 2010. Denny Morrison of Fort St. John, B.C., Lucas Makowsky of Regina and Mathieu Giroux of Pointe-aux-Trembles, Que., joined by newcomer Vincent de Haitre, of Cumberland, Ont. But returning to the top of the podium will be difficult, as the men head to Sochi ranked behind teams from the Netherlands, South Korea, the U.S. and Norway.
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Ice dance
“Now we understand that experience counts for a lot,” Moir said. “Tessa and I have been working together for a very long time, we’ve been in a lot of situations together and we know how to handle them.”
Just as in Vancouver, Virtue and Moir will be challenged by U.S. rivals Meryl Davis and Charlie White for gold. The two ice dance teams know each other well: They train at the same rink in Canton, Mich., they share the same coach, and their paths to the gold medal will invariably cross. Last year, Davis and White won the World Championship in London, Ont., where both Virtue and Moir are from.
For Moir, 26, and Virtue, 24, Sochi will likely be their last time on Olympic ice. A medal for the pair is almost assured. The question is, what colour will it be?
Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, Pairs figure skating
“When we were looking at what our goals are for this season, being on the podium [at the worlds] wasn’t enough,” Radford said.
The next step: an Olympic medal in Sochi. It will be no easy task. Radford, 29, from Balmertown, Ont. and Duhamel, 29, from Lively, Ont., must face top teams from Germany and China, and of course, the reigning world champions from Russia, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, on their home ice.
“Our technical mark is always our strength,” Radford said. “We’re hoping to raise our artistic mark higher toward that of the Russians and the Germans.”
The Canadians will be skating to music in their short program that Radford wrote himself. The score, titled Tribute, honours Radford’s former coach, Paul Wirtz, who died in 2006 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Patrick Chan, Men’s figure skating
And if Chan can achieve that victory, it won’t just be any gold medal for Canada – it will be something much more significant. Chan will have gone where no Canadian male figure skater has gone before. Despite producing some of the world’s best men’s singles skaters over the years – including Brian Orser, Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko – Canada has never won the men’s event at the Olympics.
Chan is at a loss to explain why gold has always eluded Canada’s men, but heading into Sochi as the three-time defending world champion, he knows his time is now.
Though highly touted heading into the Vancouver Olympics four years ago, he was still only 19 years old, and placed fifth. Now he’s 23, more experienced and ready for the next step.
In Sochi, he will compete against a deep field that includes Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu and Daisuke Takahashi, Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten and Spain’s Javier Fernandez.
“We have a special team right now,” Jacobs told The Associated Press in January, “and we really feel we are just getting started.”
Ryan Fry (third), and brothers E.J. (second) and Ryan Harnden (lead) round out the team that also includes Caleb Flaxey (alternate). They posted an amazing 8-0 record at the Olympic trials in December.
“Brad Jacobs might be the hottest curler in the world,” assessed Russ Howard, a two-time world champion, adding, “To go through the Olympic trials 8-0, that’s a pretty tough bonspiel.”
Sweden, which won the 2013 World Championship, should also be contending for gold in Sochi.
Short track speed skating, Women’s 3,000-m relay
St-Gelais, 23, is no longer able to fly under the radar. In Sochi, Canada is expected to again be a podium threat in the relay with St-Gelais and Jessica Gregg returning from the 2010 silver medal-winning team. (Gregg, 25, from Edmonton, is the daughter of former Olympic hockey player and NHL star Randy Gregg.)
They will be joined by veteran Marie-Eve Drolet of Chicoutimi, Que., who turns 34 on Monday, Valérie Maltais, 23, also from Chicoutimi, and Jessica Hewitt, 26, of Kamloops, B.C.
Canada lost in the final at last year’s World Championship to the U.S. in Ottawa, and has fallen to No. 2 in the world rankings.
And there are plenty of questions surrounding the program after Dan Church abruptly resigned as head coach in December. Hockey Canada named former NHL coach Kevin Dineen as Church’s successor, but Dineen has never coached women’s hockey or at the international level.
Canadian veteran Hayley Wickenheiser said it would take time for Dineen’s coaching methods to mesh with the players, but added: “We’re getting more comfortable with how it’s going to go.”
That’s how tough it is handicapping this year’s Olympic hockey showdown, which boasts at least five serious gold-medal contenders.
Canada has arguably the world’s best player on its roster in Sidney Crosby, scorer of the overtime goal that gave Canada gold in Vancouver four years ago. The Russians have their own firepower with Alex Ovechkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin.
The U.S. believes it has what it takes to challenge for gold, as does Sweden. And in a short competition where goaltending is key, Finland – with three of the world’s best netminders in Tuukka Rask, Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen – is dangerous.