Going for Gold! 12 of the Hottest Athletes to Watch Before the 2018 Winter Olympics
1. Snowboarder Jamie Anderson
Jamie Anderson, 27, made the most of her first Winter Olympics, in 2014: She earned a gold medal in the slopestyle snowboarding event in Sochi. And she hasn’t slowed down since, earning gold or silver at the annual Winter X Games in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Anderson — the fifth of eight siblings — has said the best advice she’s received is “find something you’re passionate about and really pursue it.”
At the same time, she’s kept her medal-winning skills in perspective. In 2014, she told The New York Times: “At the end of the day, it’s snowboarding. We all started it because of the fun it brings and how much joy it is being out there on the mountain with your friends. It’s like playing, you know? We’re pretty much snowboarding on a playground up there.”
2. Figure skater Nathan Chen
Nathan Chen hasn’t made it to his first Olympics yet, but the 18-year-old has already made history: In January, he became the first male figure skater ever to land five quadruple jumps in a single performance — an exceptional physical feat. A month later, he did it again.
“I think that my very best performances are the times when I completely block everything out and it goes on auto drive — I don’t think about anything,” Chen tells PEOPLE. While he says “it has crossed my mind a few times,” the fact that he’s breaking skating records is "more just being able to top what I did the day before.”
3. Snowboarder Kelly Clark
One of the most celebrated American snowboarders in history — and the first woman to land a 1080 in competition — Kelly Clark is looking to return to the Olympics for a fifth time, after medaling in three of the previous four Winter Games.
“It’s an incredible opportunity to represent my country to the rest of the world, to represent snowboarding and women, it’s been one of the greatest privileges of my life,” Clark, 34, tells PEOPLE. “And it’s really fun as an athlete because you work four years for a 30-second halfpipe run, so you really get to see what you built. It’s really a rubber-meets-the-road type of situation.”
4. Skier Gus Kenworthy
What for many athletes would have been the best part of the last four years — earning a silver medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics — was really just the start of a whirlwind new chapter for Gus Kenworthy. The 26-year-old broke barriers when he announced he was gay in 2015, and continued to earn accolades on the snow, including two silver medals at the 2016 Winter X Games and the runner-up spot at the 2017 International Ski Federation Freestyle Ski World Championships.
Of returning for his second Olympics, Kenworthy tells PEOPLE: “I have the LGBT audience behind me and there’s all these people that I want to make proud and I want to do well aside from just myself, and so I feel like I’ve got a little bit more on my shoulders. But I also think that I do well under pressure so I’m hoping that that is a good thing for me and it’s all good influences.”
5. Snowboarder Chloe Kim
There are two things people usually say first about Chloe Kim: She is poised to make a Jamie Anderson-sized entrance into the Olympics, having earned three gold medals at the X Games before turning 16; and, now 17 years old, she will likely be one of the youngest breakout stars come February. (Kim actually qualified for Team USA at the 2014 Winter Games but was barred because of her age.)
“It’s some crazy luck that my first Olympics are going to be in Korea where my parents are from,” says Kim, who began snowboarding at 4 years old with help from her dad. “A lot of my relatives over there have never really seen me compete before,” she continues, “so I think it’s going to be pretty cool for everyone.”
6. Figure skater Adam Rippon
Adam Rippon, 28, has been skating at the international level — first as a teenager, now as an adult — for 10 years. And while he was named as an alternate at the 2010 Winter Games, he’s never fully qualified for Team USA. This season, he hopes to change that. “I finally said to myself, ‘You know what, no matter what the results are, I’m just going to skate my best and that’s all I’m going to focus on' ... I’m going to stop trying to please everybody,’ because that’s what I felt like in years past, I was trying to please everybody,” Rippon explains.
“And as soon as I said that,” he says, “I had a complete breakthrough.” He won the national championship in 2016, besting his runner-up status the year before. So far this year he’s made the podium at three international competitions. “I don’t always take the easiest path,” says Rippon, who is best friends with fellow skater Ashley Wagner. “But I’ve always made sure to learn from all of my mistakes and I’m ready to conquer the world.”
7-8. Ice dancers Alex and Maia Shibutani
Their nickname is the “Shib Sibs,” but brother-and-sister duo Alex and Maia Shibutani are much more than a catchy label. The ice dancers, 26 and 23, respectively, have earned gold at two international competitions this season, tying the amount they won the season before that (and the one before that). They’ve also been on the podium at the national championships for the last seven years, taking first in 2016 and 2017.
Though they placed ninth at the 2014 Winter Games, Maia tells PEOPLE they “feel really good and excited" heading into another Olympics. “We know we have absolute trust in each other,” Alex says, “and so we’re looking forward to the journey that’s taking us to the Games.”
9. Skier Mikaela Shiffrin
Last month, The New Yorker called 22-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin “the best slalom skier in the world” — and they weren’t kidding. The alpine racer, who’s been the No. 1-ranked woman in the world both this season and last, is well positioned to increase her gold medal count after a first-place finish at the Sochi Games.
“I think that the biggest difference for me coming back to these Games as a medalist is just sort of that I know what that entails — how much goes along with that and how much my life did change, how much everything picked up after Sochi,” Shiffrin says. “So I can expect the same thing to happen if I am able to win more medals, but at the same time I feel like the same person. I’m still going into these Games feeling star-struck by all of my competitors and I’m the same type of person to just keep my head down and just go do my race, do my thing and then see what happens.”
10. Skier Lindsey Vonn
A three-time Olympian, Lindsey Vonn clinched her national reputation with her performance at the 2010 Winter Games, where she earned a gold and bronze. While she has grappled with injuries in recent years — missing the 2014 Games — Vonn, 33, remains the sport’s winningest female racer. Her 77th win came in January, and she’s earned world cup race victories in all five alpine ski disciplines, a rarity.
“I’m not a very patient person, so eight years has been a really long time,” she told reporters in November at an event marking the 100-day countdown to February’s Olympics. “I’ve been working really hard. Obviously I’ve had my share of ups and downs with my injuries, but I’m healthy now and I’m really looking forward to another chance at gold.”
11. Figure skater Ashley Wagner
At 26, Ashley Wagner is already five years older than Michelle Kwan was the last time she won an Olympic medal, and 11 years older than Tara Lipinski was when she won gold — but the skating veteran is not letting her age be a deterrent. “To be a 26-year-old woman on the ice is an achievement in this sport because you’re working against a lot of different things,” she tells PEOPLE. “If I got to Pyeongchang, I will be the oldest U.S. female figure skating athlete since 1924 or something like that.”
The 2018 Games would actually be Wagner’s third Olympic experience. She was a first alternate at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and earned bronze in 2014 as part of the American skating team. “I think it really goes to show that my longevity is something that’s very, very rare,” Wagner says. “And I’m really proud of that, and it’s because I’m so freakin’ stubborn.”
12. Snowboarder Shaun White
Perhaps the most famous snowboarder in America, Shaun White just missed the podium at the 2014 Winter Games, after back-to-back gold medals at the halfpipe event in 2006 and 2010. “It’s like when you fall off your bike, you still have the little scar from it – it’s part of you and you learn from it and I’ve done that,” White, 31, said in February. “I’ve been working on some new tricks and I feel stronger and more focused than ever.”
He sounded optimistic earlier this year after a world cup race in South Korea at the same venue where the halfpipe competition will be held at the 2018 Games. “The flat bottom is smooth, the walls are big,” he said. "It feels comfortable and you can go as fast as you want.”
• With reporting by JOHNNY DODD