Who are NZ's best chances in Sochi and why?

BYRON WELLS: Finished fourth at the 2013 half-pipe test event for the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
BYRON WELLS: Finished fourth at the 2013 half-pipe test event for the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Pundits are saying this year's Winter Olympics, which start in Sochi this week, are New Zealand's best chance at a medal since 1992. Fairfax Media profiles the top Kiwi hopes in Russia. 

Ever since New Zealand's paltry effort at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, there has been a rallying cry around the NZOC: "we must do better on snow".

Being there simply wasn't good enough. If we were going to compete at the Winter Olympics, we might as well be sending people with a legit shot of doing something special.

You change your mindset on something - and often the seas do part. Roll on 2014, and New Zealand's winter athletes boast some special once-in-a-generation talents. Wanaka's freeski family, the Wells boys (Jossi, Byron and Beau-James), will get plenty of attention, but New Zealand also has four women competing in the 24-person field snowboard slopestyle event - its first appearance at the Winter Olympics.

Outside the Wells lads and the 'Awesome Foursome' of the women's snowboard slopestyle, the reality is Kiwi chances aren't flash.

Pluck and courage can get you so far - but Kiwis competing in the skeleton, slalom skiing and speed skating will likely just be happy with top ten finishes - which should be considered achievements, anyway. By the very nature of freeski slopestyle and half-pipe, and snowboard slopestyle and halfpipe, anyone can pop up with a good results, given runs are scored by judges.

Jossi and Byron Wells are good shots in their disciplines, of course, but a good run by Beau-James Wells or Wanaka's Lyndon Sheehan could propel them into contention in freeski halfpipe.

Conversely, Christy Prior heads into Sochi with World Cup momentum - but Stefi Luxton, Shelly Gotlieb and Rebecca ‘Possum' Torr have the skills to put themselves in the running for a medal too. Below are our best realistic hopes.



Age: 23

Hometown: Wanaka

Recent honours: Named 2013 Snow Sports NZ Freeskier Athlete of the Year. Won the slopestyle event at the FIS World Cup in Gstaad, Switzerland two weeks ago. Finished second in the slopestyle at the 2013 European X-Games in Tignes.

Advantages: Has enjoyed a strong year on the pro tour in North America and Europe, while his World Cup victory in Switzerland means he heads to Russia with good momentum.

Disadvantages: Though he is confident it won't bother him, Jossi will compete in Sochi with a niggly heel injury. It's an injury that could be easily aggravated given his freesking disciplines.

Chances: 1 in 4. New Zealand's best hope for a podium finish in Sochi, in both the freeski half-pipe and slopestyle. If he is to medal, the better chance is in slopestyle.



Age: 21

Hometown: Wanaka

Recent honours: Finished fourth at the 2013 half-pipe test event for the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Finished sixth in the superpipe at the European X-Games in Tignes in 2013.

Advantages: His gritty, tough approach to skiing, and the fact that most Kiwi media attention will be focused on his older brother.

Disadvantages: The younger Wells suffered a massive ACL injury in 2011 that saw him miss the entire 2011/2012 pro season. While he has since largely recovered, he still suffers from struggles with his knees until to today.

Chances: 1 in 6. Though younger brother Beau-James and Wanaka skier Lyndon Sheehan will also line up in the freeski-half-pipe, Byron is New Zealand's best chance after Jossi. He's tough as nails - and expect him to really push on the mountain in Sochi.



Age: 25

Hometown: Kaukapakapa

Recent honours: Won the FIS World Cup in slopestyle in Stoneham, Canada two weeks ago. Named the 2013 Snow Sports NZ Snowboard Athlete of the Year, and is a finalist for the TransWorld Snowboarding female rookie of the year.

Advantages: Her creative, enthusiastic style on the park, a strong rookie year at her back and a World Cup victory on the eve of the Olympics which will give her huge confidence.

Disadvantages: Prior's relative inexperience in big world events, given this is her first full year on the pro tour.

Chances: 1 in 6. Prior's biggest asset in the women's snowboard slopestyle, which sees her joined by three other Kiwis, is her form heading into the event. She's confident after the World Cup victory - meaning she will be feared by competitors.

Sunday News