Are, Sweden-March 8, 2001 (AP) -- After back-to-back seasons of skiing setbacks, Nebraskan Chad Fleischer believes he is ready for the World Cup Finals.
The start to the season was promising _ a fifth in the first downhill at Lake Louise, Canada, in November. He has had little success since then, but he was confident after practice for Thursday's downhill. He had the12th-fastest time Wednesday.
``My race skis come out tomorrow, and they always go fast,'' Fleischer said.
He was 1.28 seconds behind Austrian Josef Strobl's top time, and about one second behind World Cup leader Stephan Eberharter of Austria and Silvano Beltrametti of Switzerland, but less than 0.8 seconds behind the fifth-place racer. Fleischer was 0.3 seconds faster than Hermann Maier, who already has clinched the World Cup overall title.
``Finally, I'm back,'' Fleischer said. ``It is an exciting feeling coming back in form, and I'm stronger and healthier than I've been all season.''
For Fleischer, the season will be over too early.
``At least, I can take all those feelings into the summer. The ultimate is to try to win a gold medal in the Olympics. I'll already start skiing in April. The Olympics are the best thing, so that's all I care about,'' Fleischer said.
Along with Daron Rahlves of Truckee, Calif., Fleischer is the only American contender for Olympic downhill victory in Salt Lake City, Utah, next year. But essentially, he has already had two lost seasons.
In 1999, Fleischer injured a rotator cuff in the left shoulder after six races, and this season, he had continuous problems with his ski boots.
Fleischer started trying new boots, tried new liners and new tongues and kept trying to switch everything to get the right feeling.
``In every training run before the (world championships) downhill in St. Anton, I was on a different pair of boots, and every single time I had new feelings,'' he said.
Fleischer's search might finally be over, even though he crashed in both races at Kvitfjell, Norway, last weekend with his newest pair.
``I got so much edge that I wasn't used to, and got to making turns that were so good that I was crashing through the gate _ like I was turning too well.''
After some minor adjustments, Fleischer seems to be satisfied in Are.
``I had the opportunity to train the last two days, and now the boots feel like they really are dialed in,'' Fleischer said.
A Top 10 finish would vault Fleischer into the Olympic season on a good note. A place on the podium would give the fans something different when it comes to hairdos. Fleischer sports a blond look with dark leopard spots because he admires the prowess of the snow leopard _ ``strength, speed and courage.''
``I learned a big lesson this year, but at the same time it was my own fault because I only skied 10 days last year going into this winter because of my health problems,'' he said. ``I'm feeling very healthy again and I'm ready to start doing a lot of training already in April, all the way through into the next season.''
Fleischer, based in Vail, Colo., has one career podium finish, a second in a downhill in Spain two years ago.
Copyright (c) 2000 The Associated Press