The Ones to Wasatch

Jan 2, 2002
Outside Magazine

Schlopy > World Cup Giant Slalom, January 2001

Picabo Street may be the poster girl for Yankee pluck, but she's not the whole story. U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team honchos are talking about scooping up as many as ten medals in Salt Lake City, including possible golds in downhill and Super G. The boast isn't merely a PR stunt; 78 Americans will compete at five venues in the Wasatch Mountains around Park City and Ogden, in the disciplines of alpine skiing, nordic skiing, and snowboarding. The team's final selection occurred after this issue went to press, but it's clear from a look at top contenders that this year's Team USA should improve on the dismal performance at Nagano. —Eric Hagerman

/ Slalom / Giant Slalom /
Erik Schlopy

Some athletes crank the tunes. Others snarl at their competitors. Buffalo, New York, native Erik Schlopy lines his helmet with flash cards that read, "Drive hips at apex of turn while maintaining snow contact." Hey, whatever works. Indeed, Schlopy's ruthlessly analytical character may be just the thing to get the job done in a discipline that's all about technical precision. The 29-year-old finished last season ranked third in giant slalom, after taking second in two World Cup races. The breakthrough sets him up perfectly for a top-three finish in Salt Lake. "It's never been a question of talent with Erik," says Dave Striegel, a sports psychologist who's worked with Schlopy for three years now. "It was just a matter of time. He has gotten really good at being comfortable skiing at the edge of his potential, that fine line between being too aggressive and too conservative."
/ Half-Pipe Snowboarding /
Danny Kass

If Danny Kass could be anything when he grows up, it would probably be a punk-rock front man. But for now, the 19-year-old snowboarder would settle for Olympic medalist, so long as he can listen to the Misfits through his headphones while he competes (he can, and will). Kass, who hails from Mammoth, California, cropped up at the top of the national standings last year thanks to a fluid style developed after 12 years on a skateboard. That and his "lofty amplitude" (read: big air) went over well with judges, who might be tiring of the trend toward herky-jerky technical accuracy that has come with the transformation of snowboarding from lifestyle to sport. Kass's agent Bob Klein, who has worked with such notorious figures as Shaun Palmer, sums it up this way: "Putting a routine together like a figure skater is what he's not doing." Kass will have to worry about a handful of Scandinavians, but then, don't they listen to Abba?

/ Parallel Snowboarding /
Rosey Fletcher

It's impossible to talk about Fletcher's odds without bringing up the ignominious bonk of her entire team at Nagano, where the Americans hoped to own the podium. "All the girls sucked there," snorts coach Peter Foley. "They all crashed. It was horrible." Plenty has changed since then, not the least of which is the format itself. Instead of zipping through a line of gates one at a time, the fastest 16 racers now blaze along on side-by-side courses. New, too, is Fletcher's maturity at the ripe age of 26. "We went into Nagano so naive. We were saying, ÔWe're going to kick butt!' and it came back to haunt us," says Fletcher, who placed second to Switzerland's Ursula Bruhin at the World Championships last season. "I feel like I'm a completely different person now. I have my energy going in one direction instead of every which way." With any luck, this Alaska native should be able to give her coach something nice to say come race day.

/ Freestyle Aerials /
Eric Bergoust

"Head and shoulders, Eric is above everybody else in the world," says U.S. freestyle-skiing coach Jeff Wintersteen, and not just because that's the sort of thing he gets paid to say. Bergoust has won 12 World Cup events, posted the three highest aerials scores ever, and invented the "double-in takeoff" technique that most of his competitors now use to launch themselves into their acrobatic routines. He is unquestionably the Zen master of executing three flips with four twists on a pair of skis, the trick it'll take to win in the Wasatch and the same one he used to take gold at Nagano. But don't expect a slam-dunk medal this month—Wintersteen charges that the judges may not have adequate experience to recognize how much more advanced his twist is. If the score givers don't get it, or if our favorite so much as twitches midtwirl, you might instead be hearing about American Joe Pack, a crowd (and judge) pleaser who will be particularly dangerous given that he went to high school in Park City. "What we do is kind of a show, and I'm one of those guys who likes to hear some noise," says the 23-year-old Pack, ranked second in the World Cup last season. "I'm antsy, man."

/ Combined Sownhill / Slalom /
Caroline Lalive

At Nagano, where an 18-year-old Lalive finished seventh in the combined—an event whose score is determined by adding a racer's times in one downhill run and two slalom runs—she viewed her feat as a delightful surprise. "But now if I got seventh," she says, "I'd be pissed." And rightly so. Lalive won the Junior World Championships in 1999 and has since been adjusting to the grind of the World Cup circuit. The task is especially difficult because she spreads herself so thin, competing in all four disciplines of alpine skiing. Her challenge at the Snowbasin Resort, where the downhill events will be held, is not physical (she can set an edge just as well as Croatian phenom Janica Kosteli"c or anyone on the powerful Austrian team) but psychological: She admits to a touch of performance anxiety. "One of my teammates had this dream that she showed up to the start and was just wearing her underwear and boot liners," Lalive says. "I definitely have some of that." Assuming Lalive can keep her pants on, there's an excellent chance she'll be standing on the podium.

/ Downhill / Super G /
Daron Rahlves

The Salt Lake Olympics couldn't be a better match for Daron Rahlves, the first American man to win the World Championships in the Super G. First, the course at Snowbasin Resort is steep and technical, ideally suited to a racer of his smallish stature. (At five-foot-nine and 175 pounds, he can't glide over flat stretches as fast as, say, an Austrian bricklayer.) Second, the 28-year-old Truckee, California, resident isn't exactly insecure: "I know I have what it takes," he says, narrowly averting arrogance. "I don't have to do anything special." Third, as he proved last season at a World Championships event at St. Anton, Austria, he thrives under pressure. "I remember being at the top and just laughing with my coach, looking at how many fans there were—it was, like, 60,000 people." (At Park City, there will be a mere 22,000 on hand.) Rahlves responded by beating Austrians Hermann Maier and Stephan Eberharter on their own turf. Now, he expects to repeat those wins at home.

/ Nordic Combined /
Todd Lodwick

For those in need of a refresher course, nordic combined goes like this: Whoever jumps the farthest from a 90-meter ramp leads off in a 15-kilometer cross-country ski race, with the pack staggered in intervals behind. The format agrees with Todd Lodwick, 25, who is perhaps the fastest skier in his sport. Throw in his fondness for high altitude (he hails from 6,695-foot Steamboat Springs, Colorado), and Lodwick's chances start to look pretty good for the Olympic course, which sits at 5,478 feet. His takeoff can be spotty, but he tweaked his technique several years ago, and late last season seemed to be finding his groove; in January 2001, before a hometown crowd in Steamboat, he won a World Cup event. "In simple terms," says Tom Steitz, team program director for U.S. Nordic Combined, "if he gets his jumping down, he will be one badass mother."