International athletes to watch at the 2022 Winter Olympics: Part 1

Posted at 3:46 PM, Nov 10, 2021

At the last Winter Olympics, four countries — Norway, Germany, Canada and the Netherlands — joined the United States in winning at least 20 total medals. All four nations will once again field multiple strong medal contenders in 2022, but other countries such as New Zealand and Estonia that traditionally don't win many medals will also be able to dream of gold thanks to their up-and-coming young stars.

In this two-part series, we'll give you a look at some of the top athletes from around the world to watch out for this winter. Part 1 here covers the snow sports, and Part 2 features the ice and sliding sports. Previous articles have also listed some of the top American athletes to know.

Athletes to Watch
Team USA: Part 1 | Part 2
International: Part 1 | Part 2
More: New Faces

Yuto Totsuka, Japan, Snowboard Halfpipe

When Olympic medalists Shaun White and Ayumu Hirano took extended breaks from the contest scene in recent years, Hirano's compatriot Yuto Totsuka slid in as the top rider in men's halfpipe. Totsuka, 20, was a consistent podium presence at major contests in 2019 and 2020, but after breaking through to win the Burton U.S. Open in February 2020, he was undefeated throughout the 2020-21 season and earned his first titles at X Games and the FIS World Championships. At a pre-season training camp in Switzerland, Totsuka and two of his Japanese teammates — Ayumu Hirano and Ruka Hirano (no relation) — landed triple corks in a halfpipe. (In December, Ayumu Hirano became the first rider to land it in a contest.) Japanese snowboarders could sweep the Olympic podium, though Australia's Scotty James remains a strong contender and White is the ultimate wild card. Totsuka's first Olympic appearance in 2018 ended with a hard fall and an 11th-place finish.

Yuto Totsuka holds up a Japanese flag
Reigning halfpipe world champion Yuto Totsuka has been leading the way for a strong Japanese snowboarding team.

Scotty James, Australia, Snowboard Halfpipe

In the years following the last Winter Olympics, many halfpipe competitions came down to Yuto Totsuka vs. Scotty James. While Totsuka came away with top honors at last season's big contests, it was James, the 2018 Olympic bronze medalist, racking up wins in the seasons prior. The four-time X Games champion (2017, 2019, 2020, 2022) and three-time world champion (2015, 2017, 2019) is known for wearing red mittens that resemble boxing gloves when he competes. He's also known for being the first rider to land a switch backside double cork 1260 — a trick with a high degree of difficulty because of its switch backside rotation. That signature trick continues to be a staple of his runs and helps keep the 27-year-old Australian among the favorites for any halfpipe contest he enters.

Scotty James celebrates
2018 Olympic bronze medalist Scotty James competes with red mittens that resemble boxing gloves.

Kelly Sildaru, Estonia, Freeskiing

After a torn ACL prevented her from making her debut in 2018, Estonia's Kelly Sildaru is finally set for her first Olympic appearance. Sildaru, who was just 15 at the time of the injury, was a heavy favorite for slopestyle gold in PyeongChang before the torn ACL, and in the years since, she's expanded her skills to become one of the top threats in halfpipe and big air as well. At the 2019 X Games, she earned medals in all three events, including gold in slopestyle; a year later, she won gold medals in both slopestyle and halfpipe. Because Estonia lacks mountains, Sildaru grew up practicing on small features — her technical ability on rail sections helps set her apart from many of her slopestyle peers — and was discovered through her YouTube videos. The 19-year-old will arrive at the Winter Games as a medal contender in all three events.

Eileen Gu, Kelly Sildaru and Jennie-Lee Burmansson share a podium at the Youth Olympics
Kelly Sildaru (center) and Eileen Gu (left) were the top two skiers in women's slopestyle at the 2020 Youth Olympics and are likely to share many more podiums in the years to come.
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Eileen Gu, China, Freeskiing

Kelly Sildaru's not the only teenage triple threat in women's freeskiing. There's also 18-year-old Eileen Gu, who starred at the 2021 Winter X Games by winning three medals — gold in halfpipe and slopestyle, bronze in big air — in the span of two days. While Sildaru was absent from that event due to injury, the two freeski sensations are likely to be among the top favorites at the 2022 Winter Olympics in all three disciplines. Gu, who was born in San Francisco to an American father and a Chinese mother, is set to be one of the stars for the host nation at the Beijing Games after she obtained Chinese citizenship in 2019. She previously won gold medals in halfpipe and big air at the 2020 Youth Olympics, along with a silver medal (behind Sildaru) in slopestyle.

Eileen Gu waves to the camera
Eileen Gu earned medals in all three freeski disciplines at the 2020 Youth Olympics and 2021 X Games.
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Petra Vlhova, Slovakia, Alpine Skiing

Mikaela Shiffrin finally has a worthy slalom rival in 26-year-old Vlhova who, like Shiffrin, heads to her third Winter Games this year. She has yet to earn her first Olympic medal, though that looks certain to change in 2022 as Vlhova's last four seasons on the World Cup circuit have been terrific. She has captured at least five race wins per season since PyeongChang, including five this season in slalom to Shiffrin's two. Vlhova sits just a handful of points behind the American in the race to become overall champion, an accolade she won in 2020 while Shiffrin grieved the loss of her father. The Vlhova/Shiffrin rivalry could also extend to the giant slalom event, where both skiers are ranked within the top five.

Petra Vlhova of Slovakia celebrates a World Cup slalom victory.
Petra Vlhova of Slovakia celebrates a World Cup slalom victory.

Ester Ledecka, Czech Republic, Alpine Skiing/Snowboarding

In 2018, Ester Ledecka made history by becoming the first woman to win gold in two different sports at the same Winter Olympics. Her win in snowboarding's parallel giant slalom event was expected, but her victory in Alpine skiing's super-G event came as a shock — even to Ledecka herself. She's continued to split time between both sports, even skipping the 2019 World Snowboarding Championships in favor of competing at the World Alpine Championships instead. While her strongest medal hopes will once again come in parallel giant slalom snowboarding, she's landed on a handful of World Cup podiums in recent seasons for Alpine skiing and could be a factor in the speed events. One thing's for sure though: the 26-year-old Czech won't be flying under anyone's radar this time around.

Ester Ledecka holds a plush Olympic mascot
Ester Ledecka's historic 2018 Olympics shocked even herself.

Mark McMorris, Canada, Snowboard Slopestyle/Big Air

The most decorated male athlete in Winter X Games history, Mark McMorris has amassed 21 medals at that event between slopestyle and big air. He's won Olympic medals too — bronze for slopestyle in both 2014 and 2018 — but is still chasing his first gold medal. His PyeongChang 2018 medal came under adverse conditions, as he had spent the past 11 months recovering from a horrifying backcountry crash that was nearly fatal. McMorris, who turns 28 in December, remains a perennial podium contender in both of his disciplines alongside compatriots and fellow Olympic medal winners Max Parrot and Sebastien Toutant.

Mark McMorris and Max Parrot celebrate with Canadian flag
Canadian snowboarders Mark McMorris (left) and Max Parrot (right) have remained two of the world's most progressive slopestyle and big air riders for many years.

Zoi Sadowski-Synnott, New Zealand, Snowboard Slopestyle/Big Air

Snapping New Zealand's 26-year medal drought at the Winter Olympics was only the beginning for Zoi Sadowski-Synnott. After earning a bronze medal in big air as a teenager at PyeongChang 2018, she enjoyed a breakout season in 2019 by winning slopestyle contests at three of snowboarding's biggest events: Winter X Games, the FIS World Championships, and the Burton U.S. Open. Now 20 years old, Sadowski-Synnott has emerged as a consistent podium presence in both slopestyle and big air and is one of the up-and-coming stars for the next generation in women's snowboarding. In the leadup to this year's Winter Games, she won X Games gold in both disciplines, finishing ahead of U.S. star Jamie Anderson in both contests. 

Zoi Sadowski-Synnott poses with her snowboard
Will Zoi Sadowski-Synnott end Jamie Anderson's run of Olympic slopestyle titles this winter?
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Nico Porteous, New Zealand, Freeski Halfpipe

On the same day that Zoi Sadowski-Synnott ended New Zealand's Olympic medal drought, yet another 16-year-old Kiwi won a medal when Nico Porteous took bronze in men's freeski halfpipe. Linking together a run that he'd never pulled off before — he landed five double corks in what he called "the best run I've ever done in my life" — Porteous surprised even himself by placing on the podium behind Americans David Wise and Alex Ferreira. Since then, he's continued to take his skiing to new heights. In 2020, Porteous became the first skier to land a double cork 1620 in a halfpipe competition. A year later, he unveiled another world first — back-to-back double cork 1620s — and won gold at X Games for the first time in his career. That unique trick combination also propelled him to a win at the 2021 World Championships, and it positions him as a gold medal contender at the Winter Olympics.

Nico Porteous poses outdoors with his skis
New Zealand's Nico Porteous enters this season as the reigning X Games champion and reigning world champion.
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Gus Kenworthy, Great Britain, Freeskiing

At the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, Gus Kenworthy was part of a historic American sweep of the men's freeski slopestyle podium. That silver medal, along with his role in rescuing stray dogs from Sochi afterwards, soon turned him into a star, and he returned to the Olympics again in 2018, this time as a prominent figurehead for the LGBTQ community, and finished 12th while battling through injuries. But things are different for the 30-year-old trailblazer this time around — in 2019, he announced that he would start competing for Great Britain, the place where he was born and where his mother is from. Kenworthy has routinely competed in all three freeskiing events — halfpipe, slopestyle and big air — throughout his career, but until now has only competed in slopestyle at the Winter Games. This year Kenworthy will participate in halfpipe for what he's said will be his final Olympics.

Gus Kenworthy talks with a coach
Gus Kenworthy's third (and final) Olympics projects to be his busiest one yet.

Michela Moioli, Italy, Snowboard Cross

Had it not been for a collision on the last turn of the 2014 Sochi big final, she might be a two-time Olympic medalist heading into 2022. Eighteen at the time, Moioli was about to overtake Bulgaria's Aleksandra Zhekova for third place when their boards clipped. She tore her ACL. Four years later, the Italian won Olympic gold at the PyeongChang Games, and she's maintained pace with four podiums at the interim world championships – individual bronze and silver in 2019 and 2021, respectively, as well as two mixed team silvers. Now 26, Moioli faces an extremely tough field to defend her title led by 2014 Olympic champion Eva Samkova. Moioli has placed top-three in the World Cup standings in each of the past seven seasons.

Michela Moioli celebrates with an Italian flag
Despite the unpredictable nature of snowboard cross, Michela Moioli has been remarkably consistent at the World Cup level.
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Mikael Kingsbury, Canada, Moguls

The reigning Olympic champion in men's moguls is an 11-time world medalist showing no signs of letting up. Not only did Kingsbury win world titles in both moguls and dual moguls at the two most recent world championships in 2019 and 2021, but he also completed the latter part of that feat just three months after fracturing his T4 and T5 vertebrae in training. Prior to missing part of the 2020-21 season due to the back injury, the Canadian had won the last nine straight overall World Cup titles dating back to 2011-12, an incredible run that included nearly 65 victories and 100 podium finishes.

Mikael Kingsbury celebrates with a Canadian flag
In his two Olympic appearances, Kingsbury has won a silver medal (2014) and a gold medal (2018) in moguls.

Alexis Pinturault, France, Alpine Skiing

The most complete male Alpine skier in the world today is 30-year-old Frenchman Alexis Pinturault, the reigning World Cup overall champion. Pinturault specializes in the combined discipline – which is to say that he does not specialize at all, since it tests skiers’ abilities in both downhill and slalom. In PyeongChang, he came within .23 seconds of Olympic gold, finishing second behind the now-retired Marcel Hirscher. Should Pinturault get to the top step of the podium in 2022, he’d become the first French Alpine skiing gold medalist in 16 years.

Alexis Pinturault holds his arms in the air in celebration
France's Alexis Pinturault has won back-to-back bronze medals in giant slalom as well as a 2018 silver medal in the combined event.

Robert Johansson, Norway, Ski Jumping

The man with the flying mustache is back for more hardware in 2022 after stepping onto the podium for all three men’s ski jumping events in PyeongChang. Johansson, 31, became an internet sensation in 2018 due to his signature handlebar, but it's his prowess in the air that can turn heads this winter. Johansson is coming off a strong showing at the 2021 World Championships in which he won silver in both the individual large hill and mixed normal hill competitions.

Robert Johansson with his Norway ski jumping teammates
Robert Johansson helped Norway claim gold in the ski jumping team event at the 2018 Winter Games.

Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo, Norway, Cross-Country Skiing

Quadrennial powerhouse Norway has long dominated Olympic cross-country, and it's poised to continue that reign in 2022, led by Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo. The 25-year-old captured three golds at the PyeongChang Games in both sprints and the men's relay, three events in which he would later claim world titles at both the 2019 and 2021 World Championships. Additionally, he's made the overall World Cup standings podium every season since PyeongChang, winning twice, and took the 2018-19 Tour de Ski. His Norwegian women's team counterpart, Therese Johaug, is likely to return a favorite at multiple distances after serving a doping suspension that prevented her from competing at the last Games.

Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo celebrates as fans hold out Norwegian flags
After winning three cross-country gold medals in 2018, Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo is back for more.

Johannes Thingnes Boe, Norway, Biathlon

Entering PyeongChang, the young Norwegian was a three-time world champion with four runner-up finishes and OK success on the World Cup circuit. Since capturing 20km gold and two relay silvers at those Games, Boe, now 28, has fully developed into one of the top athletes in the world at their respective sports. He's amassed an additional nine golds and five silvers at the world championships and won three straight overall men's World Cup titles during the interim cycle, reaching the podium in nearly 50 races over that period. French legend Martin Fourcade's retirement leaves spots for the taking, while older brother Tarjei Boe, a success himself, provides mirrored talent on Norway's strong relays.

Johannes Thingnes Boe shoots a gun during a biathlon event
Johannes Thingnes Boe will be shooting for more biathlon medals at the 2022 Winter Games.

Akito Watabe, Japan, Nordic Combined

Japan's Akito Watabe has come tantalizingly close to winning Olympic gold in two straight Games, and he's hoping this will finally be the year he earns that elusive prize. Watabe is a four-time Olympian and has a pair of silver medals under his belt thus far. He also won gold at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in 2009.

Akito Watabe holds up his skis
Akito Watabe won silver medals in the normal hill competition at the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics.

SEE MORE: International athletes to watch at the 2022 Winter Olympics: Part 2