Countdown to Pyeongchang: Six Months to Winter Olympics

The opening ceremony will be held on Feb. 8, and every event will be broadcast on NBC's TV and digital channels. Here's what's in store

In just six months, snowboarders, slalom skiers, speed skaters and others will arrive at Pyeongchang in pursuit of Olympic gold. We’ll watch as athletes from around the world compete in 15 winter sports, catching their dreams or seeing them dashed on the mountains of South Korea during the 2018 Winter Games

Olympians who fell short at the Sochi Games four years ago will be focused fiercely on dazzling this time, aiming for that highest perch on the winners’ stand. Look for performances from the American veterans of past games, from the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team to the affectionally dubbed Shib Sibs, ice dancers Alex and Maia Shibutani.

What you won’t see? Hat tricks or any goals from National Hockey League players, at least not with the NHL's blessing. The league will not interrupt its season for the Pyeongchang Games.

The opening ceremony will be held on Feb. 8, and every event will be broadcast on NBC's TV and digital channels. Here’s what’s in store:

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Sound Like a Native Speaker
If you’ve never been to South Korea and you’re not sure of your Korean pronunciations, we’ve got a guide for you.

Pyeongchang is in the Taebaek Mountains, which fittingly for the Winter Games are sometimes called the Korean Alps, in a region east of Seoul in Gangwon-do, or Gangwon Province. Gangwon is known for its resorts (and Buddhist temples) and is popular with skiers and snowboarders. To help the influx of visitors avoid confusion with the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, Pyeongchang rebranded itself with a capitalized “C." (The city's official name still has a lower-case "c," however.)

Competition will be divided between Pyeongchang and Gangneung on the coast, with the opening and closing ceremonies to take place at Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium. Many of the events in the mountains will center on the Alpensia Resort. Hockey, curling and speed and figure skating will be in Gangneung.

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Coming Back From Heartbreak
U.S. Olympians certainly had their low points at the Sochi Games. The U.S. speed skating team won only one medal in short track, though it had been favored in a number of events. The U.S. Women’s Hockey lost gold to its Canadian rivals in overtime, after giving up a two-goal lead.

Russia took 33 medals, 13 of them gold, more than any other team, though international anti-doping watchdogs have since offered evidence of Russian cheating. A state-sponsored doping program involved more than 1,000 athletes from 2012 to 2014, leading 19 national anti-doping agencies to demand that Russia be excluded from the Pyeongchang Games. That’s a possibility for its Paralympic team.

For the U.S. athletes who failed to reach first place at Sochi, Pyeongchang offers another chance at the podium.

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J.R. CELSKI: American speed skater J.R. Celski was the top medal hope for the United States in the men’s short track speed skating in Sochi. Instead, he dropped from the lead in the 1,500 meter and finished fourth.

He and his teammates did win a silver medal in the 5,000-meter relay, the only medal for the Americans. And Celski has two bronze medals from the 2010 Vancouver Games.

“Sochi was a rough time for all the speed skaters out there,” Celski told NBC. “We had a lot of expectations and I think we were expecting to go in there and do really, really, really well and not a lot of us did so yeah, it was tough time. There’s a time to reflect and learn what you can and carry that going forward and there’s also a time to let it go and focus on what you need to.”

SHAUN WHITE: Snowboarder Shaun White similarly had a disappointing Games at Sochi. White had hoped to win his third straight halfpipe title, but ended up in fourth place. He was aiming for the first-ever gold medal in the slopestyle event, which debuted at Sochi, but, worried about an injury on the dangerous course, he withdrew.

In February, he told NBC Olympics that he has never gotten over the loss, but has learned from it.

“So it’s a part of me now, which is great,” he said. “As hard as it was, I’m thankful that it happened because it taught me a lot.”

And he said on NBC's "Today" show: “Obviously not performing the way I’d like in Sochi really inspired me and I got re-focused, recalibrate and I’m back at it.”

LINDSEY VONN: Celski and White fell short at Sochi, but Lindsey Vonn didn't get to the games at all. She injured her right knee months before the Olympics.

The speed skier won two medals in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and was expected to be a star in Sochi. Instead, she faced surgery, and has struggled with injuries ever since. She earned a bronze medal in the downhill at the 2017 World Championships. 

Despite fighting through injuries for most of the past five years, she's considered one of the sport's stars. In May, she was named the first International Games ambassador for the 2018 Games, and she called the course challenging with lots of jumps.

“It would mean the world to me if I could get back on the podium in Pyeongchang after missing the last Olympics in Sochi,” Vonn told NBC. “After being injured for almost all of the last five years I’ve definitely been through my share of obstacles and have overcome most of them. But one thing I haven’t done is been able to do the Olympics after I won gold in Vancouver. So if I could win again or even be on the podium, it would be incredible.”

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MAIA AND ALEX SHIBUTANI: Finally, there are the Shib Sibs, Maia and Alex Shibutani, who made their Olympic ice dancing debut in Sochi, when Maia was 19 and Alex, 22. They placed ninth.

“Our first Olympics was so inspiring,” Maia Shibutani told NBC. “It was a dream come true to be a part of Team USA, and from that we really discovered how we wanted to approach these four years.”

Maia Shibutani, who describes her brother as her best friend, learned to skate when she was 4 and loved the sport immediately. Alex Shibutani was slower to embrace it — he wanted to be a basketball player — but when he saw how much fun his sister was having, he thought he’d give it a try.

“Walking in the opening ceremonies, that was a dream come true, competing on Olympic ice, it was highly motivating and I think since that time we’ve really matured,” he said. “And it really informed us on how we wanted to approach our career, following those Games and leading up to Pyeongchang. And so we’re so excited. We’re ready. We’ve reached another level and so we’re excited to see how things go.”

U.S. WOMEN'S HOCKEY: The U.S. Women's Hockey Team won the first-ever women's hockey gold medal in 1998. They haven't been back on top of the podium since.

The team settled for silver in 2002, 2010 and 2014, and bronze in 2006. 

Megan Duggan, who played on the 2010 and 2014 teams, said that the second-place finishes in the last two Olympics were pushing the women to perform.

“It’s the number one motivation,” she said. “It dictates training every single day. It’s no secret to anyone that the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team wanted gold in the last two Olympics and certainly came up short. So that’s the number one motivator for us looking forward to 2018. It’s gold or bust.”

Helping the American women hockey players prepare for this year's Olympic Games is Colleen Hacker, a sport psychology consultant and mental skills coach. Every sport has unique demands, Hacker said.

“Hockey, it is immediate, explosive, dynamic, high intensity, high performance,” she said. “It has to happen the instant, the instant your skates hit the ice.”

Among hockey’s particular aspects: its shifts, the roughly minute-long bursts of time on the ice that team members cycle through, and its periods.

“The nature of the shifts, they’re short,G they’re intense and you have to be 100 percent on in a millisecond,” she said. “That’s very unique to hockey.”

In this Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2019, photo, a placard commemorating the Great Molasses Flood rests on a wall at the site of the 1919 disaster in Boston’s North End neighborhood. The city will mark the centennial of the disaster, when the tank containing more than 2 million gallons of molasses erupted, killing 21 people and injuring 150 others. (AP Photo/Steven...

Tensions With the North
North Korea's repeated missile tests, including a recent one of a missile that appeared capable of reaching Los Angeles, have added a disquieting layer to the games this year. The U.S. has responded by increasing military and economic pressure but the North's leader Kim Jong-un, who hopes to force the U.S. to drop sanctions and withdraw troops from South Korea, said the country will not negotiate its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

After the United Nations Security Council approved new sanctions against North Korea — banning imports of coal, iron and other goods by UN members — the isolated regime warned it would take “physical action” in response. President Donald Trump tweeted praise for the sanctions while Japan warned that the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons had entered “a new stage.”

Meanwhile, the new South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, elected after his predecessor was impeached, is trying to revive a policy of engagement leading to reconciliation with the North. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has offered to open negotiations with Pyongyang and assured it of its security if the country gives up its nuclear weapons.

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The NHL to Stay Home
The National Hockey League made it official in April that it would not participate in the Winter Olympics. The league had wanted to be compensated for interrupting the regular season so that its players could travel to South Korea for the games. The league also was dissatisfied with being unable to use the Olympics for marketing because of sponsorship rules.

The players union called the decision shortsighted, impeding the growth of the game by giving up a chance to reach sports fans worldwide.

"NHL players are patriotic and they do not take this lightly," it said in a statement.

Dick Pound, a member of the International Olympic Committee, chastised the NHL in a column in the Montreal Gazette on August 3.

“It is not sufficient for the NHL to be content with plucking the low-hanging financial fruit, but to fail to invest in the future of the game,” he wrote. And he called the decision to prohibit individual players who want to represent their countries heavy-handed, an abuse of its economic power and disrespectful to the rights and dreams of the players.

Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin has said he plans to play for Russia, a position the Capitals owner, Ted Leonsis, supports.

USA Hockey expects to fill its team from the ranks of college players.

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Preparation Near Completion
Who can forget the photos that journalists tweeted of unfinished hotel rooms at the Sochi Olympics? No heat, no water, no lobby in one hotel, and when U.S. bobsledder Johnny Quinn found himself trapped inside a men's room due to a jammed door, he was able to break through shoddy construction.

Nor was Russia the only country to build venues right up until the last moment -- just think Rio, Athens or Montreal.

But in South Korea, much of the work is already done and athletes have been trying out the facilities.

"We're almost 100 percent ready to host athletes," Ji Jue Lee, with the Pyeongchang organizing committee, said in May.

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