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U.S. Team Filled With Lots of Unknown Athletes

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 1998; Page C1

NAGANO, Feb. 4 — Four years ago, the U.S. Olympic team that arrived at the Winter Games in Lillehammer was full of notables and even the notorious. Veteran speedskaters Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen were ready to tug at American hearts and hasten pulse rates, as they both had in 1988 and 1992. Figure skater Brian Boitano was putting the finishing touches on his Olympic career. And, of course, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding — who had not yet been charged in connection with the assault on Kerrigan — were still amid the drama that captivated an international audience.

Now, the U.S. Olympic team is populated with standout athletes who haven't yet been discovered by the U.S. public. Or with beat-up veterans still searching for that elusive Olympic medal. And with, of course, the world's very best female skaters, teen-agers Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski, who have never performed in an Olympics.

The American Olympic stage seems wide open.

"It's the Olympics. Anybody can win," said U.S. skier Tommy Moe, who came out of nowhere in Lillehammer to win the downhill. "The favorites have all the pressure. Don't count the Americans out."

The American public treasures Olympic gold medals, a speed train connecting anonymity to fame. Blair is a household name in the United States and bobsledder Brian Shimer is a three-time Olympian who is barely known. The main reason is that Blair owns a pile of gold medals and Shimer doesn't have one of any color.

Moe's victory in Lillehammer is the only downhill he's ever won at the world-class level, but that race has made him one of the most famous skiers in the United States.

"People still come up to me and say, 'Hey, way to go, way to represent the U.S.,'" Moe said. "It's been a fun ride. I've met a lot of people since then. I've traveled around a lot. And I've made some good money."

Cammy Myler has won several World Cup medals in luge but never an Olympic gold, so many Americans wouldn't know her from Cammi Granato, a U.S. hockey player. Ever heard of Mark Grimmette? He and Brian Martin are the best luge team in the world this year. And they are from the United States.

Like Myler, Shimer has been more successful on a consistent basis throughout his career than has Moe. Shimer has won numerous World Cup medals and annually been near the top of the World Cup standings.

He is known somewhat, though not necessarily by name. He's the one who drove with NFL star Herschel Walker in the two-man bobsled in the 1992 Olympics.

"I say, 'I drove for Herschel Walker,'" Shimer said. "Then they say, 'Oh, yeah, I remember you now.'"

During these Games, many American athletes will be seeking to become the next athletic sensation.

"When we come to the Olympics, it's always a different game," U.S. bobsled driver Jim Herberich said. "It's the time that everybody back home gets to watch us. It's a hugely important thing."

With Kwan, 17, and Lipinski, 15, medals are assumed. The only question is the color, and will U.S. skater Nicole Bobek win one, too? More of a mystery surrounds the men's and pairs figure skating competitions. The U.S. has a host of medal contenders: Todd Eldredge and Fairfax's Michael Weiss among the men, and Kyoko Ina-Jason Dungjen and Jenni Meno-Todd Sand among the pairs.

The U.S. Alpine ski team won five medals at the '94 Games. This time, the skiers say they are at an advantage on the neutral ground of Japan, where the European skiers can't feel at home as they do on the mostly European World Cup circuit.

The men's Alpine team looks to be in disarray — just as in 1994, when Moe not only won the downhill but added a silver in the super giant slalom. For the women, '94 downhill silver medalist Picabo Street is recovering from knee surgery, but she could add a medal in the downhill and possibly the Super-G. Kirstin Koznick, 22, is a new face who seems likely to bring home a medal in the slalom, after winning a World Cup race last week.

The United States seems certain to win medals in snowboarding, which is new to the Games, and freestyle skiing, two rapidly growing sports in which U.S. athletes consistently excel.

"In a sport like mine, you need to get a medal to get recognition," said Ann Battelle, one of three U.S. medal favorites in the freestyle moguls (Donna Weinbrecht and Liz McIntyre are the others).

Both the men's and women's U.S. hockey teams are medal contenders. In speedskating, many eyes will turn to 17-year-old Kirstin Holum, who is famous not for winning a gold medal — which she isn't likely to do before the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 — but for being the daughter of Olympic gold medalist Dianne Holum.

Speedskater Christine Witty seems to have a medal reserved, and possibly three. She set the world record in the 1,000 meters late last year.

"You still hear, 'Bonnie Blair is gone; the United States is doomed,'" Herberich, the bobsled driver, said. "I'm thinking: 'Hold on. We've got a world champion and a world- record holder in Chris Witty.' Sometimes the way we look at it, all we do is scratch the surface. It's difficult. If [athletes] don't do great things all along, you aren't going to know about it."

Still the most famous female speedskater in the United States — even while retired-Blair has been handing out U.S. uniforms and jackets at the team processing center in Osaka. Blair's husband, Dave Cruikshank, is the only 1998 Olympian in the family, though he is not likely to win a medal.

The United States has never won a medal in Olympic luge. This year, the U.S. team could snare four, with Myler, Grimmette and Martin, Wendel Suckow and the doubles team of Gordy Sheer and Chris Thorpe all bringing strong credentials to Nagano.

While the athletes dream, some coaches worry. The athletes who succeed will see their lives change. But not everybody wins.

"My only concern is that these guys stay focused and compete up to their potential," said U.S. freestyle skiing coach Cooper Schell. "I know if they don't, it will haunt them for the rest of their lives."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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