Sochi: Who Are the New Stars of the Olympics?

6:59 PM PST 02/18/2014 by Debbie Emery
AP Photo/Sergei Grits
Shaun White

With Lindsey Vonn and Shaun White out of the spotlight, THR caught up with two of NBC's Olympic experts who explain why stars such as Sage Kotsenburg and Mikaela Shiffrin have caught their attention.

With the Winter Olympics already past the halfway point, names that normally steal the headlines such as Lindsey Vonn and Shaun White are noticeably absent -- while rising stars are attempting to fly to the forefront and grab people's attention.

NBC has 85 experienced hosts and on-air talent on the ground in Sochi keeping a close eye on the hottest athletes who are making their names on the world's biggest winter stage. 

Along with prominent faces such as Matt Lauer, Bob Costas, Meredith Vieira, Dan Patrick and Rebecca Lowe, the Peacock network has a huge team of former Olympians, play-by-play announcers and experts in their frozen fields.

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The Hollywood Reporter caught up with NBC correspondents Jimmy Roberts and Sal Masekela to get their take on the games so far -- and the names to keep an eye out for in the future.

"I think Sage Kotsenburg is doing a pretty good job [of being the star of the Olympics] as he really embodies that spirit," Masekela tells THR, of the young American who won the slopestyle gold medal. "When I see him on the late night talk shows and doing press, I get really excited -- I think he is a kid that happened to have the greatest day of his life on the biggest stadium of the world in snowboarding," revealed the action sports specialist, who covered the X Games for 13 years. 

"All those ski slopestyle guys [Joss Christensen, Gus Kenworthy and Nick Goepper] really caught everyone's attention because it was a full sweep of the medals by Americans -- suddenly people are going to want to come out and take notice," says Masekela. "There are a lot of people out there who are now curious about how the sport is evolving."

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Two-time gold medalist White was absent from the medal table, after finishing fourth in the halfpipe and opting out of his slopestyle debut. 

"I don’t think anything is lacking with him not doing well, I think the story of Shaun struggling and dealing with injury, that at 27 he tried to prepare for not one but two events and defend his medals, that was a big story and got people watching. But by Shaun not winning, viewers got to know some of the other names and personalities who are just as exciting and endearing.

"He is a brand, he has all these deals, but he is one sliver of many flavors that come from this sport. It is almost a good thing that he is not totally dominant and that Americans get to learn other personalities, and it will widen the scope and teach them what these games are about," explains Masekela.

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One high profile favorite of Masekela's is Bode Miller, the bronze-medal-winning skier who broke down in tears during an interview Sunday when asked about his late brother, Chelone, a professional snowboarder who died in April following a seizure. 

"If ever there was an athlete who walked to the beat of his own drum, it is Bode Miller," he explains. "He makes critics pull their hair out because of the choices he makes, but he continues to be the most dominant man in the history of the sport. I think Americans like to root for people who don’t think they’re perfect, we root for those who are flawed because we are flawed. It is much easier to identify with someone makes no bones about it," he added. 

As for longtime host and veteran of 15 Olympics, Jimmy Roberts, the heroes of Sochi so far are names most Olympic watchers probably aren't familiar with, such as Emily Scott, the short track speed skater who advanced to the quarterfinals of the women’s 1,000 meters Tuesday. "Her mother and half-sister are both in prison for crimes related to methamphetamine, and she basically went on GoFundMe.com to raise money to get to the Olympic qualifiers," Roberts tells THR.

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Another young prodigy is 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin, who finished fifth in the giant slalom Tuesday and missed out on a medal by just 0.23 seconds. "Mikaela is like [gold medalist swimmer] Missy Franklin was in London – she’s 18 and dominating, which is hard in a sport where people fall down a lot!" says Roberts. 

With an impressive 19 medals, "the Dutch speed skating team as a whole will be heralded after the games," he went on to say. "Speed skating in the Netherlands is the biggest sport there is -- it is like NFL in America or soccer in Europe -- so for them to do what they've been doing is amazing."

Other squads who have caught his eye are the Russian and British female curling teams: "They are these stunning women, and that is causing quite a buzz -- it is big here," says Roberts. "Curling has its whole own subculture, you start watching and you just can’t stop; it is very hypnotic."

Coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi continue on NBC and concludes Feb. 23. 

 

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