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Go USA: Alpine Predictions

Go USA: Alpine Predictions

Features
By Kendall Hamilton
posted: 12/18/2001

The biggest surprise is already in the works as flag bearer Picabo Street leads the U.S. Olympic contingent into Rice-Eccles Stadium in front of 50,000-plus screaming fans for the Opening Ceremonies.

A Canadian high-pressure front has camped over greater Salt Lake, and the entire region¿including the ski resorts of Park City, Deer Valley and Snowbasin¿will experience cold, clear weather for the Olympic fortnight. Better yet, SLOC's bribery scandal finally has been put to rest, its buses run on time, the Mormon Church mounts a huge volunteer effort and, amazingly, thousands of visiting European ski fans learn to live with Utah's unique liquor laws. Security is tight and visible, but not overwhelming. Let the Games begin.

The men's downhill is scheduled on the roller coaster-like Grizzly course at Snowbasin on Sunday, Feb. 10, a date that allows the organizing committee two weeks to battle the notoriously difficult weather to stage the event. It won't be necessary.

The Austrians are always feared and favored in downhill, having placed a dominant eight men among the top 10 in the World Cup standings last season. They arrive in Utah at half-strength, minus the services of the injured Hermann Maier and Werner Franz. Even so, the battle for the four Austrian starting bibs is intense, with Stefan Eberharter leading the charge. The Americans counter with super G World Champion Daron Rahlves of Sugar Bowl, Calif., as a contender and Chad Fleischer of Vail, Colo., as a dangerous darkhorse. Norwegian superstar Lasse Kjus and Switzerland's Franco Cavegn are also among the downhill favorites.

Race day dawns clear and fast¿perhaps too fast. Utah's "Greatest Snow On Earth" has been injected with water to create a rock-hard race surface, and the undulating, unforgiving Grizzly is too much for many skiers. It doesn't help that inclement weather prevented organizers from hosting a World Cup here to act as an Olympic dress rehearsal. Almost a third of the field exits the course after just 20 seconds at the blind Flintlock Jump. The technical and mental skills of Eberharter and Kjus prevail, and they take the gold and silver, with Cavegn earning the bronze. Rahlves puts down a gutsy run, yet finishes just off the podium in fourth, with Fleischer eighth.

The Americans start 0-for-1 in the premier race of the Olympics. Ski Team CEO Bill Marolt, who knows his alpine squad will need to pick up four or five medals to reach his overall team goal of 10, reaches for his Rolaids.

The next day is bright and clear for the women's downhill¿and for 30-year-old Picabo Street, the veteran warrior, and her younger teammates. While Street, who now lives in Park City, has been a study in self-absorption throughout her legendary career, she takes a very different role this fortnight, counseling, cajoling and advising her younger teammates, including Kirsten Clark of Sugarloaf, Maine, Caroline Lalive of Steamboat Springs, Colo., and Jonna Mendes of Heavenly, Calif. The Americans are longshots against Austrians Renate Goetschl, Tanja Schneider and Michaela Dorfmeister, Germans Regina Haeusl and Martina Ertl, and Canadian Melanie Turgeon. French skier Carole Montillet is on a mission, having dedicated the season to her fallen teammate, Regine Cavagnoud, who died in a training collision in early November.

Street runs early and strong on Wildflower, a course that suits her gliding skills, and she crosses the finish with the lead, just .01 ahead of a surprising Pernilla Wiberg of Sweden. Street goes immediately to the radio and offers course advice to her teammates. Her position holds up until the late 20s, when the young Americans and the European favorites take their best shots. First Goetschl takes the lead, then Montillet. Finally, 24-year-old Clark, who approaches the day as if this were just another race, bumps Street off the podium and takes the bronze. But instead of fleeing the finish scene in anger, Picabo hugs her teamte and reflects on all of the success of her own incredible ski career. The U.S. has won its first alpine medal of the 2002 Games.

The men's and women's super Gs are held on the same Snowbasin terrain, with a shorter and slower course set. The event tends to favor the technical skiers over the pure downhillers, and Rahlves' improvement as a GS skier is apparent as the Californian moves up to take the bronze, behind Austrians Eberharter and Josef Strobl. It is a solid day for the Americans, with Fleischer and Bode Miller finishing in the top eight. The news is less promising on the women's side, as U.S. skiers Clark, Mendes and Lalive finish out of the medals, which go to Goetschl, Dorfmeister and Italy's Isolde Kostner.

The alpine combined used to be the ultimate barometer for all-around skiing supremacy. Now, with most competitors specializing in either the technical or the speed events, it is looked down upon as second-rate and draws a smaller field. It doesn't matter to either Bode Miller or Caroline Lalive that they will receive less money or attention for winning a combined gold. They know this is their best shot for an Olympic medal, and they summon a focus that each was missing just a year ago at the World Alpine Championships in St. Anton, Austria.

Miller thinks that a top 10 in the downhill race portion of the combined will set him up for a medal, though in the past he has been unable to think of racing at anything less than 110 percent. This time, Miller finds just the right gear, and finishes a strong seventh. In the slalom, he overtakes Austrian Mario Matt for the combined silver, with Kjetil Andre Aamodt hanging on for yet another big event win. American Paul Casey Puckett finishes a strong fifth place.

Lalive, still nursing a broken nose suffered in November, battles to the end with Croatian Janica Kostelic for the women's combined gold. Kostelic makes up time in the slalom for the win, but Lalive is content to have a silver medal around her neck. The Americans now have four alpine medals, just one less than they managed in the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.Bode Miller won a World Cup GS in December in Val d'Isère, France, the first U.S. victory in that event since Phil Mahre's in 1983. Along with Erik Schlopy and Sarah Schleper, who also landed on World Cup podiums in GS last season, the U.S. team has had its best results since the early Eighties in this most important discipline. Strength in GS leads to success in all the other events.

Yet in Park City, the U.S. comes up just short. Miller, Schlopy and Thomas Vonn all manage top 10s, but can't get onto the podium, occupied by Switzerland's Michael VonGruenigen, France's Fredric Covili and Sweden's Frederik Nyberg. Schleper is the top American woman in ninth, while Sonja Nef of Switzerland, Anja Paerson of Sweden and Canadian Allison Forsyth take the top three spots, respectively.

Kristina Koznick, who created her own one-woman team two years ago and has invested some $500,000 to cover her training and travel costs, is buoyant on the eve of the Feb. 20 women's slalom. While training the day before, she responded in the Park City liftline to a random "single" call, and ended up on the chair with Ski Team boss Marolt. Old school met new school eye to eye, and by the time they unloaded at the top, Marolt had agreed to reimburse Koznick's training costs and allow her one-woman team back in the U.S. fold¿if she met certain performance goals. The next day she decisively wins both runs of the Olympic slalom, besting Croatian phenom Janica Kostelic and Nef. Marolt offers Koz a check in the finish area; her coach and boyfriend, Dan Stripp, proposes marriage; and she is handed the Olympic gold medal she has dreamed about since starting to ski as a toddler at Buck Hill, Minn. She happily accepts all three.

It has been a frustrating two weeks for the talented Erik Schlopy. For the last run of the last event of the 2002 Games, he stands in 30th position in the slalom, 2.5 seconds behind his teammate and roommate, leader Bode Miller. With nothing to lose, Schlopy thinks only of putting down a perfect run for his own gratification. As he bursts out of the starthouse, his mind stays with the basics: pole plant, head leading the turn, look three gates ahead. Pushing through the finish, he knows he has completed the best run of his life. Content with that, he leaves the finish corral with his parents and fiancée without glancing at the scoreboard to check his time. NBC, which has decided to cover this final alpine event live, chases after Schlopy for an interview, to no avail.

Twenty-six racers later, Schlopy remains in first place. No one has come within two seconds of his second-run time. Only three racers remain: Austrian slalom aces Benny Raich and Mario Matt, and Bode Miller. Raich and Matt ski flawlessly to pass Schlopy, and they now stand one-two. If Miller can turn in a solid run, he will win his second Olympic medal¿and knock his friend Erik Schlopy off the podium. While Miller has learned this season to back off and finish, he charges out of the start like the Bode of old, straddles the fourth gate and comes to a halt. In the instant he realizes he has just thrown away an Olympic medal, he hears the rallying cry of his teammate Schlopy, who had returned to the start to cheer on his friend. "Go," screams Schlopy, who had noticed something that video replay would confirm later: Miller's ski boot passed on the inside of the gate, and he would not be disqualified.

Miller is lightning on the remainder of the course, and though he lost three seconds with his mistake, he crosses the finish to the screams of a flag-waving crowd. Miller has tied Schlopy for the bronze, earning the U.S. Ski Team its sixth and seventh alpine medals of the 2002 Games. Only Austria, with nine, wins more.n in the slalom, 2.5 seconds behind his teammate and roommate, leader Bode Miller. With nothing to lose, Schlopy thinks only of putting down a perfect run for his own gratification. As he bursts out of the starthouse, his mind stays with the basics: pole plant, head leading the turn, look three gates ahead. Pushing through the finish, he knows he has completed the best run of his life. Content with that, he leaves the finish corral with his parents and fiancée without glancing at the scoreboard to check his time. NBC, which has decided to cover this final alpine event live, chases after Schlopy for an interview, to no avail.

Twenty-six racers later, Schlopy remains in first place. No one has come within two seconds of his second-run time. Only three racers remain: Austrian slalom aces Benny Raich and Mario Matt, and Bode Miller. Raich and Matt ski flawlessly to pass Schlopy, and they now stand one-two. If Miller can turn in a solid run, he will win his second Olympic medal¿and knock his friend Erik Schlopy off the podium. While Miller has learned this season to back off and finish, he charges out of the start like the Bode of old, straddles the fourth gate and comes to a halt. In the instant he realizes he has just thrown away an Olympic medal, he hears the rallying cry of his teammate Schlopy, who had returned to the start to cheer on his friend. "Go," screams Schlopy, who had noticed something that video replay would confirm later: Miller's ski boot passed on the inside of the gate, and he would not be disqualified.

Miller is lightning on the remainder of the course, and though he lost three seconds with his mistake, he crosses the finish to the screams of a flag-waving crowd. Miller has tied Schlopy for the bronze, earning the U.S. Ski Team its sixth and seventh alpine medals of the 2002 Games. Only Austria, with nine, wins more.

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