She mouthed the word, a silent curse. Tears came. She stood with two teammates in bright lights set up for television cameras. People put microphones in her face. It was too much.

So she had lost. She did not win a medal. Twice now she had lost when she had reason to think these Olympics would bring her joy unbounded. She ached with what she had missed.

And she had to strike out at someone.

Cindy Nelson is a fighter. Three times she has missed a year's skiing with the injuries that attend flying down steep hills at 70 miles per hour. She always gets up. They put her back together and she won a silver medal in the 1976 Olympics. She has moved, since then, with the best in the world, as good as anyone on her best day.

What she wanted was to cry.

Someone with a microphone had asked a question: "When do you think Americans will be totally competitive with the rest of the world?" It seemed an innocent question, what with the American skiers shut out of medals in an Olympics in which teeny-tiny Liechtenstein now has won three medals.

"I totally disagree with that," Cindy Nelson shot back at the radio man.

She had been answering questions in a soft voice of disappointment. Now she was fighting. She was angry. As Beth Heiden told the press to go to hell the day before, now Cindy Nelson lifted her chin, biting off the words, and lectured the man with the microphone.

"We are a very young team," she said. At 24, Nelson is the grandma of a team that includes women 17, 18, 19. "I am by far the most experienced skier we have. I've been here since 1971. And now in the world I'm totally competitive with anyone. Annemarie Moser-Proell, Hanni Wenzel, all of them.

"Give some people time to mature. Have some faith."

Turning away, she cursed the man silently, her lips moving, her eyes glistening now with tears.

These have not been the Olympics of America's dreams.

But is that, as Beth Heiden and Cindy Nelson ask, the athletes' fault? Or have Americans made too much of these athletes? a

We all know about the screws holding Phil Mahre's ankle together because he has been written up as a medal contender, the best downhiller in years. But he finished 15th, far, far behind Andreas Wenzel of Liechtenstein, the silver medalist.

We know Beth Heiden because she set world records and her face was on the newsstands. Here she won a bronze medal, a single medal when we had been convinced by her coach that Beth would win three or four, possibly all gold.

Cindy Nelson we saw on the television in that little white car on behalf of the United State Olympic Committee. Yet, for Cindy Nelson, silver medalist, world-class competitor, these Olympics at Lake Placid, three hours' flight from her Minnesota home -- yes, Cindy Nelson could do it here. h

She didn't. She finished seventh in the downhill, her specialty, and she was 13th in the giant slalom today, running far behind today's winner, Hanni Wenzel of Liechtenstein, who also was second in the downhill.

Teeny-tiny Liechtenstein now has won a gold and two silver medals in skiing in these Olympics, and mighty America has won none. A country with no flag and a national railroad system 5 1/2 miles long, a country with 24,000 people and two newspapers, Liechtenstein is laying it on the 200 million people of the United States.

What a neat story. A dot on the map, squeezed in by Austria and Switzerland, leaves a world superpower up the mountain. The village of Planken, population 140, sends two Wenzels to Lake Placid and with two of its favorite events yet to come has won as many Alpine skiing medals as the United States has in the last 16 years.

In 1960 the U.S. won three skiing medals and in '64 won four. If it is shut out this time, and that once unspeakable possibility is a possibility now, the U.S. will leave without a skiing medal for the sixth time in 13 Olympics.

Prospects for other medals are not good, either. Eric Heiden has won four golds, with a fifth coming, and so the team total of medals likely will reach 11 by Games' end. That's one more than in 1976, one fewer than the all-time U.S. record of 12 in 1932. o

Without Heiden, then, the United States likely would win only six medals. You have to go back to 1936 to see such a low number.

Why such a melancholy performance when conservative estimates said the U.S. should win 15 medals, maybe 20? The U.S. speed-skating coach even said her charges might win 18 of the 27 medals available on the ice oval.

"I just know," Cindy Nelson said, "that on this given day, I didn't have it together. The Olympics is a once-in-four-years proposition, and I didn't have it on the right day."

Of 24,000 people in Liechtenstein, 8,000 ski. Everyone lives within a 30-minute drive of the Malbun Mountain ski resort. Hanni Wenzel grew up in the Alps, where skiers are national figures who dine with princes.

"It will be our biggest day ever when Hanni wins the gold medal," said Peter Ridder, the chairman of the Liechtenstein Olympic Committee. "There will be a great national feast tonight."

While the U.S. ski team has all the money it wants, it yet is an oprhan of the snow. Americans hooked on football and basketball for real thrills say to these orphans: we'll see you on TV once every four years.

So Cindy Nelson weeps in anger. And Beth Heiden curses when it seems to them that Americans demand -- demand! -- gold medals.

Nelson confronted the man with the microphone.

She put her face a foot from his.

She cried out. "Why do Americans expect miracles?"

Good question.