St. Anton, Austria (AP by Erica Bulman)--While the powerful Austrians are weighted with high expectations competing at home in the World Alpine Ski Championships, the Americans are preparing surprises.
With a knack for pulling unexpected victories at big events, the U.S. team is ready for its final major test before the Salt Lake City Olympics.
The Americans have won eight medals this season, and finished fourth three times.
"The Americans are not usually consistent, so there's no pressure in the big events," said Daron Rahlves, winner of consecutive downhills last season. "When there's no pressure, it's easier to pop one. Those who are consistent and do well all the time have a lot more pressure to cope with.
"Take Tommy (Moe). He had no pressure ahead of the Olympics in Lillehammer. He steps it up and boom! Wins the Olympics. He had the ability, and with the others under pressure, he was able to win.''
Moe won the Olympic downhill in 1994, beating home favorite and overall World Cup champion Kjetil Andre Aamodt.
Many other Americans have come through with unexpected success. Billy Johnson won the Olympic downhill at Sarajevo in 1984. Hilary Lindh won the downhill at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville. Diann Roffe-Steinrotter took the silver in the giant slalom the same year. Julie Parisien was runner-up in the slalom at the world championships in Morioka, Japan, in 1993.
"They have an uncanny knack of going big at the major events,'' Tom Kelly, U.S. ski team spokesman, said. "We have a history of that. Much to the frustration of the Europeans.
"There are a couple major factors. It's partly because the sport is not a day-to-day sport in the United States. The worlds and Olympics tend to be a focal point of the American public. It's easier for them to understand, so the skiers know this is their chance."
This year, the American team has shown it can prove troublesome to the mighty Austrians.
Erik Schlopy placed second in a giant slalom at Bormio, Bode Miller finished third in a giant slalom at Val d'Isere, and Rahlves was third in a downhill at Kitzbuehel and fourth in a super-G the previous day.
The women's team also is a threat in the technical events, with Kristina Koznick winning three medals in slalom and Sarah Schleper finishing second in a slalom at Sestriere, Italy.
Young all-rounder Caroline Lalive, who has collected points in every discipline, placed sixth in a slalom at Flachau, Austria.
With all that said, however, the Americans failed to medal at the last world championships in 1999 at Vail, Colo.
"We didn't have much medal potential on the team then,'' Kelly said.
Koznick was perhaps the team's only medal hope at the time, but she didn't do anything. She failed to complete the slalom at the Nagano Olympics in 1998 and went out again at Vail.
"It's true, Americans tend to do well at the big events, but I have yet to do well at a big event,'' said Koznick, winner of four World Cup races, all slaloms. "Hopefully, I'll fall in line at these worlds.''
But with six skiers on the team earning medals this season, the pressure is off Koznick. The 13 skiers on the world championship team have all scored points on the World Cup this season.
Rahlves believes Americans can win, but sometimes don't believe it.
"A number of us on the team have the ability to be competitive with the other skiers on the World Cup,'' he said. "The thing is, if you think there's something special that the other skiers are doing and you feel you have to take a lot of risk to make up for that, that can be bad.''
The championships open Monday with the women's super-G.
Regine Cavagnoud of France has three wins and two seconds in the five super-G World Cup races this season.
Cavagnoud fought back from injuries last season to finish third in the overall World Cup. This year, there seems to be no stopping her.
"After my results iin the World Cup races, only gold counts for me,'' she said.
Austrian hopes for the first medals Monday rest with Renate Goetschl and Michaela Dorfmeister.
Goetschl has been battling with the young Croat sensation Janica Kostelic for the lead in the overall World Cup this year. Goetschl was last year's overall winner.
Dorfmeister won at Aspen, Colo., in the season opener, was second at Val d'Isere, France, and placed third at Haus im Ennstal, Austria.
The Austrian women swept the medals in the super-G at the last championships.
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