Olympic Preview -- Alpine Skiing

By United Press International  |  Feb. 4, 2002 at 12:55 AM
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With Bode Miller at the forefront, the United States could enjoy a very productive Olympics on the slopes around Salt Lake City.

Miller heads an alpine skiing team that gives the Americans a chance for their best medals haul since 1984, when Bill Johnson and the Mahre brothers helped the United States collect five.

Things almost certainly will be better than four years ago in Nagano, Japan, when the only American to come home with hardware was Picabo Street, who won the women's super-G.

Street likely won't even break from the gate in that event this year since she finished 33rd at a recent World Cup event, putting her behind several teammates in the selection process. But that was a minor setback for a talented American team that figures to make its presence felt at the Deer Valley Resort in Ogden.

"There's an awful lot of experience on this team," spokesman Tom Kelly said upon selection of the American team.

Leading Team USA is Miller, who does just fine when he's able to stay upright. The New Hampshire native's reckless style that has gotten him into trouble also has garnered some gold.

It was just a year ago that Miller injured knee ligaments in a spill at the World Championships in Austria. He still appeared a bit out of control as the 2001-02 World Cup season opened in France, crashing in the super-G and placing an awful 32nd in the downhill the following day.

Even when Miller was third after the first run of the giant slalom two days later, skeptics and supporters alike were waiting for the next bodacious move by Bode. It came in the second run, when he righted himself to avoid a certain crash and won by an eyeblink.

After posting the first World Cup giant slalom win by an American since Steve Mahre in 1983, Miller won a slalom in Italy two days later, proving it was no fluke. He will try to become the first American to win slalom gold since Phil Mahre edged brother Steve in 1984.

Miller is not the only American man with a chance to medal. Daron Rahlves will be looking to regain the form that allowed him to score an upset in the super-G at the World Championships last year. Rahlves has shown signs of late with some strong finishes on the World Cup circuit.

As usual, however, the Europeans figure to make their mark as well.

In the slalom, Ivica Kostelic of Croatia and Mario Matt of Austria could bump Miller off the top of the podium. Three months ago in Aspen, Kostelic and Matt captured slaloms on consecutive days. Kostelic is fifth in the World Cup standings.

Both the downhill and super-G have been dominated this winter by Stephan Eberharter of Austria, which again fields a powerful team.

The World Cup leader, Eberharter has won three downhills and three super-G events and is peaking at the perfect time. The 1998 silver medalist in the giant slalom has a good chance of becoming the first to win both events.

Eberharter has finished off the podium just once in 11 events.

At the Olympics, he could be joined there by compatriots Fritz Strobl (downhill), Hannes Trinkl (downhill), Benjamin Raich (giant slalom) and Rainer Schonfelder (slalom).

Other threats to medal include Frederic Covili of France and Fredrik Nyberg of Sweden in the giant slalom and Norway's Lasse Kjus and Kjetil Andre Aamodt in the combined.

Covili has been no lower than second in three World Cup giant slaloms and all four men are in the top 10 in the overall standings. Kjus was the 1998 silver medalist in the downhill and combined and the 1994 gold medalist in the combined. Aamodt won the gold in 1992 and the bronze in 1994 in the super-G.

The men's competition will be missing familiar faces Hermann Maier of Austria and Florian Eckert of Germany, both of whom are injured.

Maier was a two-time gold medalist at Nagano who tied the World Cup record for wins in the 2000-01 season. The "Herminator" was injured in a motorcyle accident last year and had not recovered in time to compete.

Eckert won a bronze in the downhill at the 2001 World Championships but broke his right leg in a crash.

The women's World Cup season has been marred by the death of Regine Cavanoud of France, who suffered fatal injuries in a wipeout in October. She won the 2000-01 super-G World Championship.

Street's crash following her gold medal in Nagano and the ensuing surgeries and rehabilitation have set her back. But she still will run the downhill, which remains her best event.

Among American women, the best hope for a medal perhaps lies with Kristina Koznick in the slalom. Koznick has not made many friends by training independently of the team with coach and boyfriend Dan Stripp. But it is hard to argue with the results as she shared a slalom title in Germany and is sixth in the World Cup standings.

Another possibility is Kirsten Clark, who tied for third in a World Cup super-G in December. She also won a downhill last season.

Any breakthrough for American gold would be a surprise as the women's circuit this season has been dominated by Sonja Nef of Switzerland and Hilde Gerg of Germany, who are tied for second in the standings.

Nef has overcome six right knee operations to stake her claim as the best female skier on the planet. She has two firsts, a second and a third in the giant slalom and a third in a slalom.

Gerg, meanwhile, has won two super-G events and a downhill this season. She also has Olympic experience, taking gold in the slalom and bronze in the combined in 1998.

Atop the standings is Michaela Dorfmeister of Austria, who is a threat to win the downhill, giant slalom and combined. She has five podium finishes, including two wins. Dorfmeister will be looking to atone for her second-place finish to Street in the super-G at Nagano.

The Italian duo of Isolde Kostner and Karen Putzer also could make some noise. Kostner is among the favorites in the downhill and won the bronze in the downhill and super-G in Lillehammer in 1994. Putzer is considered a strong contender in the super-G and giant slalom.

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