One year until Australia’s biggest and best Team march in Sochi

6 February 2013

GAMES: Australia is set to build on its recent Winter Olympic success, as the one year countdown to the Sochi 2014 Games is celebrated.

The city of Sochi, on the edge of the Black Sea in the Russian Federation, will host the XXII Olympic Winter Games from 7 – 23 February 2014. No expense has been spared by the Russian hosts as they showcase their country through the Olympics for the first time since 1980.

2014 Australian Olympic Winter Team Chef de Mission Ian Chesterman is currently in Sochi meeting with organisers and observing the crucial test events currently taking place with plenty of Australian athletes competing.

“The concept for the Sochi Games is fantastic - a highly compact Games, with superb athlete amenities and villages located right next to competition venues,” Chesterman said.

“Vancouver is a hard act to follow, but with 12 months to go, Sochi is looking good.  The commitment by the Russians to make these Games the best yet is incredible.”

It will be the most compact Winter Games ever. The Ceremonies, indoor ice sports and an Athletes’ Village will be located in the city itself at the purpose built Sochi Olympic Park - known as the Coastal Cluster. Around an hour away by high speed rail or freeway is the Mountain Cluster and another two Athlete Villages. Athletes competing in alpine, freestyle, Nordic and sliding sports will be based here.

There is still a long qualification run to travel however the projected team size of over 50 athletes would see the 2014 Australian Olympic Winter Team be the nation’s biggest yet, represented in more sports and more events than ever before.

“Our goal is to finish in the top 15 nations in medal count,” Chesterman said. “This will be a huge achievement if we make this, but Australia continues to perform well at winter sports World Cup and World Championship events and with one year to go, we have a number of athletes putting their hands up as very legitimate medal chances in Sochi in 2014. Winter sports in Australia is making big strides and we hope that we show this in Sochi.”

Two-time snowboard cross world champion Alex ‘Chumpy’ Pullin is excited by the Team and his prospects in Sochi.

"I think it will be a great team that Australia sends to the next Winter Olympics,” Pullin said. “It's really exciting to be a part of and an exciting time for all of us aiming for gold in Sochi. The results across the board this season have been really impressive and it shows a lot of us Aussies have good momentum in this Olympic qualifying year."

With the inclusion of new freestyle skiing and snowboarding events, the Team will be much bigger than the 40 athletes from 2010, who achieved Australia’s best ever result of two gold (Torah Bright and Lydia Lassila) and one silver (Dale Begg-Smith) at a Winter Olympics.

Australia’s medal prospects also grow with the addition of popular X-Games slopestyle skiing and snowboarding. The disciplines see athletes perform a series of different tricks down a purpose-built slope with jumps and rails. With reigning World Champion Anna Segal in the Aussie ski slopestyle ranks along with highly decorated freeskier Russ Henshaw – Australia is well-placed to challenge for the podium in this event.

“Having slopestyle included in the Winter Olympics is a dream come true," Segal said. "It projects the sport onto the world stage and gives many people, who are not familiar with winter action sports, a chance to see how incredible these events really are. People can expect to see things being done on skis and snowboards that they didn't know was possible; lot of air time, rail sliding, flipping and spinning. It's an amazing show.”

Australian teenager Alex Fitch won bronze in the snowboard slopestyle when the event made its Olympic debut at the 2012 Innsbruck Winter Youth Olympics. Fitch will be looking to qualify for her first senior Games (read more here) and hopes to be riding with the might of Torah Bright.

After taking time out of snowboard halfpipe following her Olympic gold in Vancouver, Bright exploded back onto the scene this season, adding slopestyle to her repertoire and picking up World Championship bronze in her first outing. With the two events spaced two days apart in Sochi – there is potential for Bright to compete in both disciplines making her a double threat in Sochi. She may also compete in the boarder cross to give her fans another reason to head to Russia.

Bright’s teammate Holly Crawford has enjoyed her own success in the pipe since finishing eighth in Vancouver. Crawford made waves when she took out the 2011 World Championship in La Molina, Spain.  At the most recent world titles at the end of January, Crawford was just nudged out of gold behind the USA’s Arielle Gold. The silver, Crawford’s third medal in as many championships, comes after little time on the snow in training or competition due to injury – showing the Sydneysider is building form ahead of next year’s Olympics.

In the men’s halfpipe, 2011 World Champion Nate Johnstone was not able to successfully defend his title in Stoneham but since injury agonisingly ruled him out of Vancouver just weeks before competition, the 22-year-old has consistently produced podium finishes including a recent X-Games gold at the Copper Mountain Grand Prix, where Bright picked up first place in the halfpipe as well, both earning important points towards Olympic qualification. Nipping at Johnstone’s heels are teenagers Scotty James and Kent Callister who are both posting top notch results.

Continuing his dominance in snowboard cross, Alex “Chumpy” Pullin is now chasing Olympic gold in Sochi. Pullin became the first Australian winter athlete to win consecuitive World Championships as he outclassed a field inlcuding a dual Olympic gold medallist and a former two-time World Champion. Taking out the World Cup in Blue Mountain this week, Pullin regained his number one world ranking and is well clear of the second-ranked Christopher Robanske in the race for the Crystal Globe.

Reigning Olympic champion Lydia Lassila has made an impressive return to competition this season after having time off and becoming a mum since her Vancouver Olympic triumph.

“I'm loving competing again and it doesn't really feel like I've had time off," Lassila said. 

Lassila won silver in her first World Cup in Changchun, China and her comeback has continued to impress with a number of podium finishes, alongside her teammates Laura Peel and David Morris who are also on the rise. A new cut-throat competition format will make these Olympic competitions even more nerve wracking than the past. Lassila is certain the level of competition will be higher as a result.

“I'm positive it will take triples again which is good because that's what I plan to do," she said. "It will take a very consistent and composed performance. And because of the new format, it will require stamina and concentration to make it thought all of the rounds.”

Australia’s other Olympic medallist from Vancouver, moguls skier Dale Begg-Smith has not competed since the 2010 World Cup Series and whether he will make a comeback for Sochi is up in the air. He is training well and there is no doubt he has the talent to succeed again under the Olympic spotlight. Australia is not without young athletes pushing for a moguls podium finish. Britteny Cox, who was the youngest competitor at the entire Games in 2010 and Matt Graham are both achieving great results in the senior ranks.

The depth of Australia’s ski cross squad may also prove a winning formula in Sochi, with Jenny Owens heading a strong women’s squad and looking to medal in her third Olympic appearance. Scott Kneller and Anton Grimus are also both performing well in the men’s.

In sliding sports, Michelle Steele and Lucy Chaffer are continuing to rise in the women’s skeleton rankings with a host of top ten performances this season. Astrid Radjenovic is attempting to make her third Olympic Games appearance in the women’s bobsled and is being powered by dual summer Olympian and former two-time hurdles World Champion Jana Pittman, in an exciting addition to the sport. Australia will also hope to qualify a two-man and four-man team.

In the fast-paced sport of short track speed skating where Australia has won Olympic gold and bronze before, Brisbane teenager Deanna Lockett is edging her way into medal contention after a series of strong world cup performances including a career-best fifth at the 2012 Nagoya World Cup.

Australia is also expected to be represented in alpine skiing, luge, figure skating, speed skating, biathlon and cross country. There will be no athletes competing in ice hockey, curling, Nordic combined and ski jumping.

Alice Wheeler and Andrew Reid

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