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For U.S. Alpine Skiers, The Heat Is On

Park City, Utah Feb. 19 2002—When high-flying favorites Eric Bergoust and Joe Pack twist and turn off the spectacular freestyle aerial ramps at Deer Valley today (Tuesday, Feb. 19), they may well collect the U.S. Ski and Snowboarding Team's ninth and 10th medals of these Salt Lake Games. That finish would consummate the U.S.'s once impossible goal of winning 10 total medals in 2002, a breakthrough threshold set five years ago by then-new team CEO Bill Marolt. Yet, if the aerialists' colleagues on the U.S. alpine team can't improve upon the one silver medal they've earned here to date, the U.S. team's overall 2002 accomplishment will, alas, ring hollow.

The alpine events (slalom, GS, super G, downhill and combined) are the marquee disciplines for the U.S. They help bring in the sponsorship dollars, create donor excitement and grab the biggest headlines year in and year out. With no offense to the talented mogul skiers or snowboard halfpipers who have been so brilliant here, Marolt and Co. will need more alpine medals in Salt Lake to proclaim this Olympiad a true success. Two or three more would be good and great, respectively. At least one, for a less than impressive total of two, seems like an absolute minimum requirement. If the alpine team gets stuck at one alpine medal, it will rank among the very worst U.S. Olympic performances in history--hardly the foundation for an organization that bills itself as "Best In The World"

The U.S. alpine skiers have four solid technical event opportunities to catch up with their "new school" teammates, beginning with women's slalom on Wednesday at Deer Valley. Kristina Koznick, the Buck Hill, Minn., veteran who operates as Team Koz with her own coach/boyfriend, is a proven World Cup winner. But she also has a nagging history of falling or skiing poorly in major events. She'll be joined in the medal hunt by Sarah Schleper, the immensely talented Vail, Colo., skier who needs to turn off all the distractions to make it onto the medals box Wednesday afternoon. In the end, the team really needs a medal—any color will suffice—from the mature, professional slalom ace Koznick.

On the schedule Thursday is the Odd Couple: the Bode Miller/Erik Schlopy show in the men's GS at Park City. Miller has the alpine team's only Olympic medal this fortnight, the improbable come-from-behind silver in the combined last Wednesday. Miller won the Val d'Isere, France, World Cup GS in December, the first for the U.S. since the Mahre era, while Schlopy was third in the Cup standings last season. Schlopy was slowed by mononucleosis, but has the talent to deliver on his home hill in Park City. Thomas Vonn, who has followed the unlikely path of NCAA-racer-turned-Olympian, is a long shot to ride his surprise ninth in the Olympic super G into medal contention in GS. A medal from Miller or Schlopy would be nice, but it's not to be expected.

The women's GS on Friday at Park City is a big question mark for the U.S., though Schleper did put together a string of top 10s in recent World Cup action. That leaves us with the closing men's slalom, where Bode Miller is as much of a prohibitive favorite as is possible in such a volatile event. The call is simple: Bode skis two strong runs, he wins by a two-second margin. Bode makes mistakes in one run, he gets a medal, possibly gold. Bode crashes, a scenario he admits is quite possible, and there is no medal for the U.S.

The Olympic results of the freestylers, snowboarders AND nordic skiers here are proof that the U.S., under the steely direction of Bill Marolt, is headed in the right direction. Though they fell short of medals, the nordic combined squad's fourth place finish in the team event and the cross-country relay team's fifth place finish are positive signs of what greatness could lie ahead for an organization committed to athletic success in the 21st century. If the alpine skiers, who earn the most money and therefore face the most pressure, can ski to their abillity in these BIG EVENTS, the U.S. Ski and Snowboarding Team can proudly carry that "Best In The World" goal toward the next Olympics in 2006.

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