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Winter Olympics: the Aussie 56

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It’s officially Australia’s biggest Winter Olympics team and by the conclusion of next month’s Games it may well be the most successful.

The AOC on Thursday announced a group of 56 athletes to represent Australia at the Sochi Winter Olympics, starting on February 7.

With another two athletes to come from alpine disciplines following appeals and an expected re-allocation of a quota spot in biathlon the team may reach 59 – or beyond.

It easily tops the 40-athlete squads from the past two Games.

Australia is eyeing off four to five medals, which would eclipse the three-medal haul in Vancouver four years ago.

“I think this team will take winter sports to another level,” said chef de mission Ian Chesterman.

“Not only is it our largest team, it is our best credentialled team.”

Australia’s best medal hopes are expected to be Alex Pullin (snowboard cross), Lydia Lassila (freestyle aerials), Torah Bright (snowboard halfpipe and slopestyle) and Russ Henshaw (ski slopestyle) but there are a significant number of other athletes who regularly reach the podium at World Cup or equivalent level.

David Morris, Laura Peel and Danielle Scott (freestyle aerials), Anna Segal (ski slopestyle), Jarryd Hughes (snowboard cross), Amy Sheehan (ski halfpipe) and Daniel Greig (long track speedskating) head that list while there is still hope moguls maestro and two-time Games medallist Dale Begg-Smith can get back on the podium after a lengthy competition absence.

While Chesterman reiterated the target of four to five medals and a top-15 finish for Australia he cautioned about expectations being too ambitious.

“We went into the last few Games and those that we thought would win medals, did win medals,” he said.

“We have athletes that can certainly do that at these Games but I don’t think we have the red-hot favourites. Where we have athletes who are big favourites they are in sports where anything can happen on the day.”

One such favourite is two-time world champion Pullin.

Despite competing in just one World Cup event this season in which he was taken out and injured in the first round he has brushed off concerns about a lack of racing, saying he is fit and ready to go.

There are more concerns about Segal though, the 2011 world champion in the new ski slopestyle discipline who has struggled during the northern hemisphere winter.

Having carried a knee problem for much of last year, she has until February 2 to prove her fitness.

Similarly, ski cross athlete Scott Kneller, who crashed heavily in December and broke his back, has been given until February 10 to pass a medical clearance.

Chesterman felt both would make the Games.

Two-time 400m hurdles world champion Jana Pittman will become the first Australian woman to represent her country in a summer and winter Games after being selected in the two-woman bobsleigh.

Bright’s dream of becoming the first woman to qualify for three snowboard disciplines is on edge, the halfpipe gold medallist sitting just outside the 24-woman qualification zone for snowboard cross in 27th.

She’s expected to know her fate in the next two days.

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