U.S. counting on Alpine skiing, snowboarding teams for Olympic success

Lindsey Vonn may become the most decorated American ever in alpine skiing.
Lindsey Vonn may become the most decorated American ever in alpine skiing. (Agence Zoom/getty Images)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Given the state of American women's figure skating, and the strong competition the U.S. men's hockey team will face -- among other factors -- it's quite possible that the marquee squads the United States will send to Vancouver next month for the Winter Olympics will be in Alpine skiing and snowboarding. Those two teams, being finalized early this week, will consist mostly of members who are familiar with what all this means -- the procedures, the pressures and everything else about the Olympics.

The snowboard team, formally announced Monday night, will feature four Olympic gold medalists: extreme-sports celebrities Shaun White and Hannah Teter, who both won halfpipe gold medals four years ago in Turin, and 2006 snowboard cross champ Seth Wescott, as well as 2002 winner Kelly Clark. The Alpine team -- to be officially announced Tuesday -- will be headlined by two-time defending overall World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn, who could be the star of the Olympics, as well as gold medalists Ted Ligety and Julia Mancuso and an X-factor -- a potentially revitalized Bode Miller.

"The Olympics is about pressure," Bill Marolt, president and CEO of the United States Ski and Snowboard Association, said last week in a conference call with reporters. "There isn't any question about that, as we talk about every four years. It's that one-day opportunity. What we aspire to do is use that pressure as a motivator, use it to our advantage."

Though the United States has improved prospects in events such as cross-country and Nordic combined, the anchors of the ski team's efforts will be in Alpine and snowboarding. The Alpine team almost certainly will include veterans Sarah Schleper -- who would be in her fourth Olympics -- Stacey Cook, Jimmy Cochran and Marco Sullivan. Andrew Weibrecht, 23, is likely the lone U.S. Alpine skier who could have a Ligety-style breakout in his first Olympics.

"Overall, we've got a team that actually has been to the Games," said American legend Picabo Street, who won gold in the super-G in 1998. "There's maybe only a few newbies. The rest of them are alumni. There's no excuses for the big-show jitters anymore."

Vonn, 25, will enter Vancouver as a prohibitive favorite for multiple medals in her third Olympics. Though she has developed into a well-rounded skier -- she intends to compete in all five disciplines at the Olympics -- she is dominating her specialties, the speed events of downhill and super-G. Her World Cup stats on the year: Five downhills, all wins; four super-Gs with two wins, a second and a third; and one super-combined event -- adding times from a downhill run to a slalom run -- which she won.

"She has done everything in her power to prepare and be ready for this," Marolt said.

Ligety, 25, was the surprise gold medal winner in the combined four years ago. He entered this World Cup season with 16 podium finishes but has just two this season, and none in his last 11 races. Mancuso, 25, has battled injuries in recent years, hasn't won a World Cup race since 2007 and has not finished better than eighth in 20 races this season.

Miller, 32, entered the 2006 Olympics as the most prominent American athlete, a role he didn't handle well. A two-time silver medalist in 2002 in Salt Lake City, he failed to win a medal in Turin. Now, he is back -- and has even rejoined the U.S. Ski Team, with whom he has always had a tenuous relationship. He has struggled with persistent ankle problems that caused him to miss Sunday's slalom race in Kitzbuhel, Austria. But his Jan. 15 win in a super-combined event in Wengen, Switzerland, shows he could medal in Vancouver.

Snowboarding now enters its fourth Winter Games, and the United States has won nearly twice as many medals (14) as its nearest competitor (Switzerland, with eight). The marquee event is again expected to be the halfpipe competition, but the U.S. team -- which was all but finalized over the weekend in Park City, Utah -- will be without two potential members. Kevin Pearce badly injured himself in a training run on Dec. 31, remains in the hospital and is out for the season, and Danny Davis suffered a back injury in an all-terrain vehicle accident last week.

Still, U.S. Snowboarding head Peter Foley said in a statement Monday night, "We are going into the 2010 Games with one of the strongest athletic lineups possible."

White, 23, debuted a new trick and won on back-to-back nights over the weekend in Park City, showing he is ready to defend his gold. Clark, who also won twice in Park City, will try to get back the gold that Teter won in Turin. Two other stars, Gretchen Bleiler (halfpipe) and Lindsey Jacobellis (snowboard cross), are back again after winning silver in 2006.

Wescott, of Sugarloaf, Maine, will be pushed by Nate Holland, who fell during the 2006 Olympics but has won five gold medals in the X-Games. Chris Klug, who won the bronze four years ago in parallel giant slalom, is back again as well, providing the Americans' best medal hope in that discipline.

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