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Originally published February 4, 2010 at 4:57 PM | Page modified February 7, 2010 at 2:36 AM

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12 Olympians to watch from around the world

Here are 12 of the hottest stories from around the world for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Here's a look at a dozen of the world's hottest athletes beyond the U.S. team competing at the Winter Olympics.

Sidney Crosby, Canada, ice hockey

No sport will be bigger at the 2010 Games than hockey, and no star is likely to shine brighter than Crosby. The 22-year-old led the Pittsburgh Penguins to victory in the 2009 Stanley Cup, becoming the youngest team captain to claim the prize. The man named "The Next One" when he was drafted into the NHL in 2005 is widely expected — at least in Canada — to fulfill his hockey destiny by leading Maple Leaf Nation to gold.

Aksel Lund Svindal, Norway, alpine skiing

When Kjetil Andre Aamodt of Norway, likely the greatest Olympic alpine skier ever, retired at the close of the 2006 Turin Games after winning his eighth medal, ski fans in Norway hardly went into a funk. They just shifted their adoring gaze to Svindal, perhaps the only skier on the planet with enough talent to step into Aamodt's oversized shoes. Svindal, 28, is one of those rare skiers who excels in all disciplines. He owns World Cup titles in Super G, giant slalom, combined and the overall (2007, 2009). His career was derailed by injuries from a horrendous fall at Beaver Creek in 2007, but the Norwegian is back as an alpine force this season, and has enough big-race poise to make a mark at his first Winter Olympics. He also has performed exceptionally well at races in North America.

Didier Cuche, Switzerland, alpine skiing

Two weeks ago, the 35-year-old Swiss veteran, who owns a silver medal in the Super G from Nagano in 1998, would have been an odds-on favorite in both the downhill and super-G at the 2010 Games. He has stood upon the World Cup podium four times this season, including impressive back-to-back downhill and super-G wins at Kitzbuhel, Austria, Jan. 22-23. Now he's a favorite with a question mark, after breaking his right thumb in a giant slalom in Slovenia on Jan. 29. If he's able to ski at Whistler, a lot of grit and determination and a bit of duct tape should keep him in contention. Don't bet against him on the Dave Murray Downhill course, even one-handed. Cuche, a bit of a showman, also is known for his trademark, no-hands "propeller" ski flip at the bottom of racecourses. Look it up on YouTube.

Armin Zoeggeler, Italy, singles luge

Four years ago, the luge great, a policeman by trade, stood on a stage in front of a historic castle in Turin and heard a boisterous crowd serenade him to his national anthem as he donned the gold medal. It would have been a fitting career-capper for the luge legend, but he wasn't finished. Zoeggeler, 36, who is one win from an unthinkable 50-victory mark in World Cup competition, is expected to wind up his career after the 2011 World Championships on his home track in Cesana. In what surely will be his final Olympics, the great champion will be seeking to add to his total of four medals (two gold, dating to Lillehammer in 1994), on the world's fastest course.

Kim Yu-Na, South Korea, figure skating

She may be the most gifted women's figure skater of all time. But the world waits to see if the 19-year-old reigning world champion has what it takes to come through when the lights are brightest. Kim, a three-time Grand Prix final champion, is one of only a handful of women on the planet to master the complicated regimens demanded by the international scoring system — and at the same time manage to turn those complicated athletic performances into art. She skates the same jumps, spins and spirals as her competitors, but reels them off with speed and grace rarely seen in the sport. With a couple of subpar performances in the middle of the current skating season, she proved she's fallible. But Kim, who lives and trains in Toronto under former Canadian great Brian Orser, goes into the 2010 Winter Games as an overwhelming gold-medal favorite over talented rivals such as Mao Asada and Mikki Ando of Japan.

Evgeni Plushenko, Russia, figure skating

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When we last saw him in Turin four years ago, Plushenko didn't just compete in men's figure skating, he owned the event. The gap between Plushenko and everyone else was so broad that the competition, from the moment the Russian finished his perfect short program, was all about the race for second. A perfectionist on the ice, the three-time world and six-time European champion largely walked away from the sport after Turin. But he returned with a flourish this fall, and appears to have lost little of his flair in a calculated buildup to the Vancouver Games. If he's healthy, the 27-year-old will be a gold-medal favorite despite serious competition from Evan Lysacek, the reigning World Champion from America, and home-nation favorite Patrick Chan of Canada.

Hayley Wickenheiser, Canada, ice hockey

The greatest female hockey player of all time has never been content to collect accolades. When she developed into such a skilled forward that she dominated the women's game, the 31-year-old from Saskatchewan turned to men's competition, playing professionally in men's leagues in Finland and Sweden. More recently, the tough-as-nails leader has been prepping Team Canada for what is expected to be an intense showdown, likely for the gold medal, against Team USA on home ice at Canada Hockey Place. Fans watching Wickenheiser match up with veteran U.S. defender Angela Ruggierro will see two of the sport's all-time greats in what's likely to be their final Olympics.

Ashleigh McIvor and Julia Murray, Canada, ski cross

They wanted fresh faces for the only new sport at the Vancouver Games. They'd be hard-pressed to do better than McIvor, 26, and Murray, 21. Both are Whistler natives who hopped onto the ski-cross bandwagon after competitive racing careers as youngsters. McIvor, a part-time model, is the reigning World Champion, and Murray, with two World Cup podiums this season, seems to be peaking just in time for the Olympics.

The inclusion of Murray on Team Canada brings the nation's ski history full circle: She is the daughter of the late Dave Murray, one of ski racing's legendary "Crazy Canucks" who died in 1990, and for whom the Dave Murray Downhill course at Whistler is named. Murray's mother, Stephanie Sloan, is a three-time freestyle skiing world champion.

The "X-Games" inspired sport, featuring packs of racers competing on a motocross-style course, is likely to be a TV hit in its first Olympics.

Magnus Moan, Norway, Nordic combined

His career trajectory points right at the top of the medal stand in Whistler. Moan (pronounced MOO-ahn), 26, one of the world's top Nordic combined (ski jumping and cross-country skiing) athletes, won bronze and silver in the 2006 Turin Games — breaking a long Norwegian jinx in a sport it once dominated. And he won seven times on the World Cup circuit last season, including a test event at Whistler Olympic Park.

Moan, a native of Lillehammer, Norway, is an average jumper, but an extraordinary ski racer. He has made up deficits as large as 25 places in World Cup competitions. He's likely to be in the leader's group at Whistler. For once, his competition will include several Americans. Bill Demong, Johnny Spillane and Todd Lodwick are considered threats in a sport where no North American has ever won a medal.

Sandra Kiriasis, Germany, bobsled

She owns the ice. Kiriasis, 26, German bobsled driver extraordinaire, won silver in Salt Lake City, when Kirkland's Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers shocked the world with a gold medal for the U.S. But since then, the world's sliding tracks have largely belonged to Kiriasis, who led a German sweep of women's bobsled at the Turin Games in 2006, and has dominated World Cup competition since. The three-time world champion driver, born in Dresden, has triumphed 38 times in World Cup competition, and will be a prohibitive favorite to repeat her gold-medal performance on the steep, superfast course at Whistler Sliding Centre.

Ole Einar Bjorndalen, Norway, biathlon

You could call him the Michael Jordan of biathlon, except Michael Jordan only has two gold medals. Bjorndalen, 36, has five and has dominated the skiing/shooting sport like no other man in history. He swept the table in Salt Lake City, coming home with four gold medals, and won a pair of silvers in Turin to bring his career Olympic medal total to nine. He also has captured 14 career World Championship gold medals. Even at what likely is the beginning of the downward slope of his career, Bjorndalen can never be counted out of a biathlon competition. Certainly not at Whistler, where the course is to his liking: Bjorndalen captured a second place in a World Cup race there last year.

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