U.S. Skiing: Few Medals but Hope
SHIGA KOGEN, Japan (AP) _ Picabo Street gave the U.S. ski team a gold medal. Caroline Lalive, Alexandra Shaffer and Jonna Mendes gave it a future.
The men’s team gave it little more than disappointment.
For the United States, the highlight of the Winter Olympics occurred on the first sunny day at Hakuba, when Street shocked the German favorites and the rest of the world by winning the super-G.
Since tearing knee ligaments 14 months earlier, Street had raced the calendar, trying to get back into form in time for the Olympics. She did, barely, as evidenced by the hundredth-of-a-second that separated her from the silver medalist.
Overlooked as Germans swept the medals in the women’s combined was the performance of three young Americans.
Lalive, 18 and still a junior skier, finished seventh; Shaffer, 22, was ninth; and Mendes, also 18, was 14th. They had no medals but a wealth of experience as the team looks to the 2002 Winter Olympics on home snow in Utah.
``We thought how awesome it would be for three Americans to be up there doing the same thing,″ Lalive said after she and her teammates watched the Germans accept their medals. ``I think it’s not at all out of our reach by any means. I think it’s definitely possible and it’s exciting for us.″
The three U.S. combined finishers, along with downhillers Kirsten Clark and Tatum Skogland and slalomist Sarah Schlepper, give the United States a solid core of promise. Shaffer is the oldest, and she turned 22 last month.
``The only way we really have a shot at doing a great job in Salt Lake (in 2002) is to have a group of women who are skiing together at the top,″ said Alan Ashley, athletic director of the ski team. ``We have that evolution taking place right now in the system. The young women who skied here are that next generation.
``Now they’re done with it. They know the Olympic experience. They know what’s expected. The job between now and then is to make sure we are very competitive on the World Cup.″
In a sport dominated by Austrians, Italians and Swiss, American men have been also-rans for years. Not since twins Phil and Steve Mahre retired in 1984 has an American man been consistently among the world’s best.
Tommy Moe won gold in the downhill and silver in the super-G at Lillehammer in 1994, but hasn’t been close since a knee injury in 1995. AJ Kitt also damaged a knee and has struggled the past two seasons.
Kyle Rasmussen, the most recent victim of knee surgery, was the only one to show a sign of life. He led the American crew with a ninth in the downhill but he’s retiring at the end of the season.
Matt Grosjean failed to finish the combined and was 15th in the slalom, the final Alpine event of the games, 1.88 seconds out of the medals.
The best of the men was Daron Rahlves, 24, a solid seventh in the super-G. While he’s shown consistency, he’s never stood on a World Cup podium.
``We have to get better equipment, we have to have better coaching, we have to have better athletes,″ men’s coach Bill Egan said. ``We have to have more dedication. We have to have more organization that supports our athletes.
``But I think we have a lot of that stuff going in the right direction right now. We’re paying a heavy price for all the changes we’ve made with the ski team in the last few years. The kids are paying a heavy price, too.″
Probably the biggest U.S. disappointment came in the women’s slalom.
Kristina Koznick skied too conservatively in the first run, then went off the course in the second when she tried to make up time. Koznick was considered a possible gold medalist, having won the last pre-Olympic slalom and moving into second in the World Cup rankings.
Other than Street and Koznick, there were no legitimate medal hopefuls among the U.S. women.
``The toughest thing in the world is to only have a few athletes,″ Ashley said. ``We have Koz and we have Peek. We have their chances. But what they need is a team to back them up.″
As for the men, ``it’s a concern,″ Ashley admitted.
``It’s something we really have to address. We’ve got to try to identify where our strengths are in the men’s program, where that next generation is coming up, and make sure we put the time and effort into them.
``The ladies’ program is much more defined that way. We really know who that next group is, and there’s another group right behind them. With the men, it’s just not that simple.″