Park City, Utah Feb, 19, 2002--As the Alpine events move from Snowbasin to Park City, all eyes--and all the expectations --shift to the athletes in the technical events of slalom and GS. Realistically, Team USA goes into these events with a scrappy mix of long shots, a couple of contenders and two legitimate favorites in the form of Kristina Koznick and Bode Miller. Can these athletes come through with medals in front of the hometown crowd? There is every reason to hope so, but smart money never bets on Olympic medals.
So far, it's no secret that the U.S. Ski Team results have been dismal. We can be disappointed but we have little reason to be surprised. In fact, thus far the athletes have finished pretty much where they have been finishing all season in World Cups. Rahlves' fourth place in the Kitzbuhel Super G, as well as Clark and Lalives' third place Super G finishes showed the capabilities of these athletes, and the potential for medals. None, however, including the much-hyped Picabo Street, were riding an upward wave of momentum in World Cup competition. Is it fair then to "blame" Caroline Lalive for her lack of confidence?
It's easy as a spectator to think they "let us down," or "choked under pressure." Maybe so, but we do the athletes and ourselves a disservice to over-step our expectations. The Olympics are all about lofty hopes and dreams, about upsets and darkhorses. On closer inspection, however, the medalists make sense. They may not always be the favorites, but they are the ones who have been knocking at the door. Neither Montillet and Strobl in the downhill, nor Aamodt and Ceccarelli in the Super G were the absolute odds-on favorites, but they were poised to take advantage of good fortune. And all will admit, that in this outdoor sport good luck has something to do with every medal.
In this second and final wave of alpine events, first up is the women's slalom. Kristina Koznick is our best hope, and her results so far this season have rarely been outside the medals. Sarah Shleper has a string of top 5 results. They are, by any standard, top contenders and have as good a chance as any to score gold. Even so, it's unwise to expect a medal. Slalom is a high-speed dance of gravity and physics. Just watch Bode Miller to understand what a delicate balance it is, even for the World's best. More than in any other event, a perfect run can be over in a hair's-breadth and heartbeat. Is that "choking under pressure?" or is that just ski racing? I'd argue it's the latter.
This is not meant to be a buzz-kill. It's just a reality check. Anything can happen. That's why they have the race, and why we watch. Everybody comes to the Olympics wanting a medal. Not all are prepared to win one, and even the ones who are perfectly prepared can just have bad luck or a bad day. As spectators, it's our job to go out there and cheer, to hope for each athlete to have the race of his or her life. We hold our breath, cross our fingers, watch the splits and either exalt or groan. But make no mistake, when it comes to medals there is no such thing as a sure bet.