From teenage stars of the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 to those who have made the journey from spectators to competitors, the Winter Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Lausanne 2020 are packed full of names to look out for.
Japan’s Ruka Hirano is acutely aware he has a lot to live up to. Having the surname Hirano and dreaming of being a snowboard champion is not an easy combination, especially when you live in Japan and your namesake, Ayumu Hirano, is one of the most recognisable winter athletes in the country, thanks to two successive Olympic halfpipe silver medals.
Yet, despite this innate pressure, 17-year-old Ruka Hirano, who is no relation to Ayumu, is doing a fine job of making his own mark on the slopes. The teenager will head into the halfpipe competition at Lausanne 2020 as the one to beat, after winning junior world championship gold in January 2019 in Leysin, on the very same halfpipe being used for the YOG.
To add a layer of intrigue, not to mention confusion for commentators, Ruka Hirano could be joined in Lausanne by Ayumu’s younger brother, Kaishu Hirano. The 17-year-old halfpipe specialist finished fourth in his senior national championships this year, but competition to make the Japan YOG squad is so fierce he may miss out on selection to the likes of PyeongChang 2018 Olympian Hiroaki Kunitake and 2019 big air junior world championship silver medallist Aoto Kawakami.
On the path to glory
Over on the cross-country courses, the German women’s team looks just as packed with gold medal-chasing talent. Helen Hoffmann and Germana Thannheimer excelled against more senior opponents at the 2019 Winter European Youth Olympic Festival (EYOF) and, given that they have the best part of another year’s development under their belts, expect both to be challenging for top spot on the podium.
The USA’s Kendall Kramer will certainly be seeking to overturn the odds in the Vallée de Joux, and she need look no further than Jessica Diggins, her team-mate in the senior national squad, for motivation. Just two years ago, Diggins and compatriot Kikkan Randall defied the European powerhouses to grab gold in the team sprint in PyeongChang, winning the USA’s first Olympic cross-country skiing medal of any colour in 42 years.
Tales of inspiration do not come much more poignant than that of lead Canadian women’s curler Emily Deschenes. The Ottawa resident was just seven years old when the Olympic Winter Games came to Vancouver and, after 10 minutes of watching the curlers in action, the youngster told her parents she knew what she wanted to do in life.
While Canada has a long and rich history in curling, Hungary’s affiliation with elite-level short track speed skating is rather more recent. Just two years after winning 1,000m bronze at the YOG Lillehammer 2016, Shaoang Liu anchored Hungary to gold in the men’s 5,000m relay at PyeongChang 2018 – the nation’s first-ever Olympic Winter Games title.
That success has clearly had an impact: between them, Liu’s young compatriots Attila Talabos and Balazs Bontovics claimed four gold medals at the 2019 Winter EYOF, and the pair are primed for further dominance in Lausanne. One of their rivals on the start line will be Julian Macaraeg, with the 16-year-old ready to create his own slice of history. Born and raised in New York, Macaraeg is of Filipino descent and will become his nation’s first YOG short track speed skater.
Stars of the future
In the Villars Winter Park, competition is set to be red-hot and of senior world-class status. Freestyle skiers Kelly Sildaru (EST) and Jennie-Lee Burmansson (SWE) are two of the most thrilling talents competing on the International Ski Federation (FIS) circuit, and they will be bringing their flicks, tricks and twists to the YOG.
Sildaru is the freeski halfpipe world champion, not to mention the youngest-ever female winter X Games gold medallist, while Burmansson was the 2017/18 overall slopestyle FIS World Cup Crystal Globe winner.
On the men’s side, Norwegian Tevje Skaug has gone from fascinated fan in Lillehammer in 2016 to a fully-fledged competitor at Lausanne 2020. Unsurprisingly, he has pledged to soak up every second.
Hometown heroes Fabian Gisler and Delia Durrer are others desperate for 9 January 2020 to come. Gisler goes in the men’s monobob and, having recorded two wins and one second-place finish in his first four Omega Youth Series events in 2019, the Swiss athlete has declared he is ready to bring home a gold for the host nation.
Alpine skier Durrer will be hoping Gisler’s is not the first gold for Switzerland. The 17-year-old is set to compete in the women’s super-G, one of the first medal events of the YOG, and, after a fine season so far on the senior FIS circuit, she could well get the Games off to a flier for the hosts.