Aspen, Colo. Nov. 25, 2001 (AP by Bob Baum)--The U.S. men's alpine ski team is confident the Salt Lake City Olympics will not be a repeat of its dismal performance at the 1998 Nagano Games.
The Americans hope to prove their optimism is warranted Sunday and Monday in the only men's World Cup stop in the United States this season.
``We've designated Aspen as a good rehearsal for the Olympics,'' said Casey Puckett, aiming to compete in his fourth Winter Games.
``I'm excited to be a part of this year's team. It's the best team I've seen since I started skiing with the U.S. ski team, the strongest and deepest team I've seen.''
A last-minute snowstorm helped conditions for the two slalom races at Aspen, where the course should be fast. The giant slalom, scheduled for Saturday, was canceled because of unseasonably warm weather and a lack of snow.
The leading medal hopefuls are Daron Rahlves in the downhill and super G, and Erik Schlopy and Bode Miller in the giant slalom and slalom.
``I think our medal chances are better going in than they've been in years,'' slalom and giant slalom racer Chip Knight said. ``You look at Bode and Erik and their position right now, and what Daron did in St. Anton. I don't think we've had three legitimate contenders going into an Olympic Games in a long time.''
Rahlves won two World Cup downhills in 2000, then took the super G title in last season's world championships in St. Anton, Austria. He won't get a chance to race in the United States before the Olympics. The super G and downhill that had been scheduled next weekend at Beaver Creek were canceled because of the warm weather.
That leaves the stage to Schlopy and Miller, who share an apartment in Austria during the World Cup season and are friendly rivals on the course.
``I like beating Erik more than anybody else,'' Miller said. ``That's absolutely true. I'm not lying. I like beating the Europeans, but at the same time, when you beat them they always make excuses. When Erik and I beat each other, it's pretty much because the other person was better on that day on that hill.''
The best U.S. men's finish at Nagano was by Tommy Moe, eighth in the super G. The Americans were a complete washout in the technical races _ slalom and giant slalom.
The United States hasn't won a men's slalom in the World Cup since the Mahre twins dominated the event in the early 1980s. Schlopy's performance in the giant slalom last season, with two second-place finishes, was the best since Phil Mahre won the overall championship in 1983.
Schlopy's best slalom finish last season was fifth.
The 29-year-old Schlopy spent three years on the professional circuit before deciding to return to the World Cup in 2000. He lives in Park City, Utah, site of the Olympic slalom next February.
Recovered from a battle with bronchitis, Schlopy won both Nature Valley Alpine Cup slalom races at the Loveland, Colo., Ski Area Nov. 15-16.
``As far as the path that I've taken the last couple of years, it's gone extremely well,'' he said. ``I'm very happy with the success I've had, very proud of it, but at the same time there's a lot of work to do.''
Miller, from Franconia, N.H., is the wild card. He is fast and reckless. Finishing races has been a problem.
He led after the first run of the first slalom at Loveland, then crashed in the second run. The next day, he crashed in the first run. He was fourth in the slalom portion of the combined event at last season's world championships, then crashed and tore a ligament in his left knee in the downhill portion.
Miller insists he is not discouraged.
``I have a really short attention span,'' he said. ``I get really mad for about 10 seconds, then it fades off in about 30 seconds. After that, I've pretty much forgot about it. But obviously, not having any slalom points the last three seasons, that gets a little irksome.''
Puckett, who lives in Aspen, was second in the final slalom at Loveland. Knight, from Stowe, Vt., and Tom Rothrock, of Cashmere, Wash., also will compete in both slaloms at Aspen.
Brad Hogan, from Holmes, N.Y., and Sacha Gros, from Vail, Colo., each will go on Monday.
``Erik proved last year that he's capable of winning on any hill,'' Miller said. ``But what's changed is the rest of the team has moved up where they're right there as well.''
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