15 Athletes To Watch During The Beijing Olympics

In February 2022, the finest winter athletes in the world will gather in China in order to once again compete in the winter Olympics. Per The New York Times, this wintery sporting event is somewhat smaller than its summer counterpart, with "just" 15 disciplines. Regardless, the combined events involve thousands of athletes — according to NBC Sports, the United States alone sends roughly 200 competitors in the games. And per Olympics, the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, involved a total of 2,833 athletes. 

While it remains to be seen how the pandemic will affect the 2022 Winter Olympics, one thing is clear: It can be incredibly hard to keep track of interesting athletes in such a massive sea of contestants. To help you in finding potential favorites, here's a look at 15 athletes to watch during the 2022 winter Beijing Olympics.

Shaun White

In every Olympics, new competitors emerge, and established legends make their last stand before retiring from the grandest stage. In Beijing, few people have a better argument for being such a legend than Shaun White. As the Olympics website tells us, the snowboarding maestro has no less than three Olympic golds to his name, and according to NBC Sports, he's already pretty much confirmed that Beijing 2022 will be his last time competing at the Olympic stage. "This is, I think, my last run," the 35-year-old athlete told in an interview with Today (via Twitter). 

White's preparation for the games has been somewhat disturbed by the unfortunate fact that he caught the coronavirus disease at the tail end of 2021, and his recovery has been somewhat difficult, to the point that he had to pull out of one competition in early January due to some side effects, as per the Olympics. "I unfortunately got Covid over the holidays, and now I'm bouncing back from it, and it's not been a fun experience," White explained. Despite this extra hurdle, the halfpipe expert is a very likely candidate for the U.S. Olympic Team, which would make him the oldest halfpipe competitor in the history of the Olympics, reports NBC Sports. What's more, his age and diminishing returns mean that he'd be an underdog this time, which would mark an interesting chapter in this legendary Olympian's history. 

Eileen Gu

Eileen Gu might have gotten into extreme sports in the U.S., but as part of China's Olympic team, the 18-year-old "Snow Princess" is one of the greatest free skiers the Beijing Winter Olympics has to offer (per Time). Already a celebrity in China, there seems to be little that the young athlete can't do ... and she's out to prove this by competing in big air, slopestyle, and half-pipe, instead of focusing and specializing. 

Per Olympics, Gu won two gold medals and a silver at the 2020 Winter Youth Olympics in Lausanne and dominated her debut X Games in 2021. When she's not on skis, she's gearing up to start her studies at the prestigious Stanford University in 2022.

Gu has an American father and a Chinese mother, and at 15, she decided to represent China at the Olympic stage in order to share awareness of winter sports in the country. She's received a massive amount of online hate for her decision, but even in the middle of tensions between the two global superpowers, Gu feels that sports can navigate the gap between the two superpowers. "It's really easy to use sport as a form of unity and communication and friendship, because everybody is working toward a common goal," she stated to Time. "Because sport really is blind to race, gender, religion and nationality; it's all just about pushing the human limit."

Mikael Kingsbury

In 2002, a 9-year-old Canadian kid watched the Salt Lake Olympics and put a note on his wall that promised he'd win Olympic gold one day (via Olympics). About two decades later, Mikaël Kingsbury won his 100th World Cup freestyle moguls event, per CBC. At this point, the 29-year-old had already fulfilled his dream. Per the Canadian Olympic Team's website, Kingsbury's impressive list of accomplishments includes an Olympic silver at Sotchi 2014 and a gold in PyeongChang 2018. 

The freestyle skier is virtually guaranteed to find himself on the podium whenever he competes, and shortly after he won FIS World Cup Rookie of the Year during his 2010 debut season, he established himself as the most dominant force in his sport. As the Canadian Olympics website notes, Kingsbury's name is rather fitting, as is his logical nickname, "The King." What's more, the athlete has stated that despite his unreal performances, he thinks he can do even better. If this exceptional athlete can bring his A-game in Beijing, he should be one of the clearest favorites to take home the gold once again. 

Mikaela Shiffrin

Two Olympics, two gold medals, one silver. Per Team USA, that is the impressive Olympic haul of alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who won her first gold — in slalom — when she was just 18. Apart from her considerable success as an Olympian, Shiffrin raked in world championships left and right. However, her last two years have been marred by tragedy. In February 2020, her beloved father died in an accident, which was incredibly hard for her and caused her to consider quitting her career as a professional athlete (per Today). Dealing with grief and regaining her motivation took her a year and a half.   

Shiffrin is still only 26 years old and is confident that she is once again ready to compete at the highest level — though some of her peers have suspected that she's lost her edge, per The New York Times. However, Shiffrin is eager to prove her doubters wrong. Her return to the Olympic stage, then, could very well mark the comeback story of the year. In fact, she's already started her domination by topping the Alpine World Cup well ahead of the Olympics. "Like, seriously people, how quick are you to forget?" the athlete sent a message to naysayers. "When a devastating thing happens, it's like coming back from a significant injury. I hadn't lost my ability or lost my fire, I was just healing, OK?"

Hanyu Yuzuru

How good is Japan's not-so-secret weapon on the figure skating front, Hanyu Uzuru? Well, let's just say that when he was named for the country's 2022 Beijing Olympics team, he flat out announced that he was going for the gold (per Olympics). The 27-year-old can back his podium aspirations up with two Olympic golds, and judging by the fact that he won his sixth Japanese championship mere weeks ahead of the 2022 winter Olympics (via NBC Sports) — shortly after recovering from a nasty ankle injury and other health problems, no less — he seems to be heading for Beijing in top form. 

However, the figure skating master ultimately considers Olympic gold a secondary goal and admits that he might not have what it takes to win it at the end of the day. After all, he has his eye on a bigger prize. In the Japanese national championships, he unleashed a quadruple Axel, a massively challenging jump that's never been successfully executed in a competition. Hanyu has attempted to perfect this outrageously difficult move for a long time, and though he didn't quite get it right there, he intends to try again in Beijing. 

"Of course, I'm shooting for first place," the athlete said (via Olympics). "But I know full well that right now, I don't have enough to win it. Sure, I could drop the Axel and look at other ways of trying to win gold, but the biggest reason I'm going to Beijing is because I want to complete the quadruple Axel."

Chloe Kim

In PyeongChang 2018, snowboarder Chloe Kim won the gold medal at halfpipe at the young age of 17, per Olympics. She heads for Beijing as a 21-year-old sports celebrity who has won virtually everything there is to win in her sport. 

However, the road hasn't been easy. As The New York Times tells us, she was shocked by the way the gold medal turned the mood against her, as some people — including some high-profile snowboarders — soured on the young star and started pouring hate and negativity on her. On top of that, a bad ankle injury in 2019 took her out of the game for close to two years. 

Kim has opened up on the bigotry she's suffered, and the steps she's taken to maintain her mental health (via Shape). She's also used her 22-month hiatus to do other things than sports, and when she once again strapped on her snowboard in early 2021, it was clear that the break hadn't done any ill for her. Now back at the top of her game and a gold metal favorite in the Beijing Olympics, the podium might very well be calling her name once again.  

Shaoang Liu and Shaolin Sandor Liu

Hungarian-Chinese speed skater brothers Shaolin Sandor Liu and Shaoang Liu are already Olympic heroes of the highest order, per Olympics. In PyeongChang 2018, they formed half of Hungary's iconic men's 5,000-meter short track relay team that, as Deutche Welle reminds us, sped past the competition to win Hungary's first Winter Olympics medal in nearly three decades. It was gold, and they set an Olympic record.  

"We started skating together, we did everything together, at World Cups and Olympics we share the same room. We do everything together," Shaolin described the experience to the Olympics. "It was special to win our first gold Olympic medal at the same time. Our parents and our family are really proud and blessed."

Though the brothers compete on the Hungarian team, they have also spent extensive time training at a Chinese sports boot camp in their youth. According to Olympics, the dynamic pair are looking to replicate their 5,000-meter relay success, and both are strong contenders for individual Olympic medals, as well. 

Erin Jackson

Erin Jackson almost didn't make it to the Beijing Olympics (per CBS News). However, her colleague Brittany Bowe — who'd already qualified for the event, as well as the 1,000-meter and 1,500-meter ones — decided to relinquish her 500-meter Olympic spot to open up a spot for her. 

The 29-year-old Jackson's Olympiad had almost ended in tragedy, as a stumble during a qualifying race had left her just out of reach of a place in the Olympic team. Bowe's decision meant that Jackson is now in, though — and it will quite likely benefit the whole team. Jackson, you see, is the best female 500-meter speed skater in the world at the moment, and in November 2021, she won the speed skating World Cup as the first Black woman ever. Per The Guardian, she's a former inline skater who made the transition to ice skating shortly before PyeongChang 2018, and proved good enough to make it in the Olympic team with such a short notice. With four more years of ice experience at her disposal, and her current stellar form, she might just be heading for Olympic glory in Beijing.  

Francesco Freidrich

Bobsledding is a wild sport, and it takes an extraordinary person to even consider being the best athlete to ever hurtle down that narrow, icy track — so, when Francesco Friedrich says that his goal is to become the best there is, it's worth paying attention (via NBC Sports). 

Friedrich entered the bobsled game after his brother, David, was seriously injured in a sledding accident, and gradually built up his toolkit, both physically and mentally. The key moment for his rise to the highest echelons of the sport was the German bobsledding team's unsuccessful campaign at Sochi 2014, after which Friedrich promised that as long as he was in the team, the medals would keep coming. Suffice to say that he kept his promise. Even without going into his many, many other, often historic achievements, Friedrich won gold in both four-man and two-man bobsleigh events at PyeongChang 2018 (via Olympics). 

Per Xinhua, Friedrich has confessed that his goal is to replicate the achievement in Beijing, and that he's so motivated that he basically canceled his Christmas to avoid health issues that could potentially undermine his meticulous and grueling preparations. 

Sara Takanashi

Sara Takanashi is on a mission in Beijing. As The Japan Times tells us, Japan's 25-year-old ski-jumping legend is holding world record numbers for both podium finishes and World Cup victories, but as Olympics notes, her dominance has one significant blemish: Her achievements as an Olympian have been disappointing. Between the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, she only has a single bronze medal to her name — an unfortunate situation that she's planning to set straight in 2022. 

Though she's still fairly young, Takanashi landed her first major victory way back in 2011. As such, she's traveling to Beijing as a crafty, highly motivated veteran, and she has a whole bunch of new tricks up her sleeve. 

"My main target is to show people how much I've developed," Takanashi says about her technique, which she's completely reworked since PyeongChang. "If I can do that, I think the results will follow." 

Alexis Pinturault

French Alpine Skier Alexis Pinturault has one bronze medal from Sochi 2014 and a silver and a bronze from PyongChang 2018 (per Olympics). That's nothing to scoff at, but he's heading to Beijing as the winner of his first Big Crystal Globe prize, and with a young rival that's forcing him to constantly stay at the top of his game. Pinturault's 2020-2021 season would likely have been far more dominant if it wasn't for Swiss athlete Marco Odermatt, a young star who snapped at Pinturault's heels all season, and gave the Frenchman a very hard time on multiple occasions. 

Per NBC, Pinturault is set to compete in Beijing. As it turns out, so is Odermatt (via NBC) ... and in January 13, the Swiss competitor defeated one of the pair's biggest challengers, the Norwegian Aleksander Kilde, while Pinturault himself had more disappointing results (via CBC). It will be extremely interesting to see whether the Frenchman will rise to the occasion in Beijing, or if someone else will take the gold. 

Kamila Valieva

Per Reuters, you won't see any Russian flags or hear the country's national anthem in Beijing, as the athletes are forbidden to fly the country's colors due to doping sanctions. Nevertheless, the country's best winter athletes are very much a presence at the Olympics — they just wear nondescript uniforms and compete under the Russian Olympic Committee's (ROC) name.  

As such, the ROC team will likely be a powerful presence in the Beijing Winter Olympics. According to ABC News, the medal favorites in women's figure skating, in particular, skew heavily toward Russia. Arguably the biggest favorite of them all is Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old skating prodigy who has shattered the short program world record no less than twice as of late (per Olympics) — an astounding performance, especially considering that she was plagued by injuries a few years ago. 

Along with young Valieva, you might want to pay attention to Alexandra Trusova, the 17-year-old who's known as "The Jumping Fairy," and is known for being the first female figure skater to successfully execute multiple complex maneuvers at the international stage.

Jarl Magnus Riiber

Norway, as ABC News notes, has a tendency to win an absurd number of medals in the winter Olympics, especially when you consider that it's a country of just around 5.4 million people (per Encyclopedia Britannica). The tenacious Nordic country's medal haul is once again predicted to be far and away the biggest one of them all, largely thanks to the Norwegians' proficiency at cross-country skiing.

Since a list of Norwegian medal hopefuls would basically be a list of their cross-country skiing team, let's turn our inquiring gaze to Nordic Combined, the biathlon consisting of ski jumping and cross-country skiing (per Associated Press). Here, you find 24-year-old Jarl Magnus Riiber, who's not only a Norwegian-level cross-country skier. He's also such an amazing ski jumper that other people take notes of his technique in a flailing effort to catch up. Combine this with the fact that he didn't quite reach a medal in PyongChang 2018, and motivation shouldn't be an issue for the super-talented athlete, either. 

Riiber could be looking at two individual Olympic golds and a team one in Beijing — though, if you ask former Nordic Combined competitor Johnny Spillane, his legacy will go far beyond that. "He's probably going to go down as the best Nordic combined skier ever," Spillane said to AP. "He's the best jumper on the hill, generally, and could probably switch to just being a ski jumper. He's a good cross-country skier and a fantastic finisher."

Sui Wenjing and Han Cong

What Olympian wouldn't dream of winning the brightest medal in front of their home audience? Many Chinese athletes have the opportunity to do so in the Beijing Olympics, and the figure skating pair of Sui Weijing and Han Cong is no doubt more eager than most to deliver. As Olympics reminds us, the pair already has a silver medal from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, so what could be greater than to do one better on their home soil?   

According to Xinhua (via Inside the Games), the pair are already a lock for the Beijing Olympics, and with a total of two World Figure Skating Championships, six Four Continents Championships, and a number of podium places under their collective belt, they certainly have what it takes to compete at the absolute top level. Could it be that the combination of their top-level performance and strong home support is enough to win them the gold?