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U.S. Medal Hopes on the Rise

Suddenly, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s goal of 20 U.S. medals at Salt Lake City--seven more than any U.S. team has won at the Winter Games--isn’t so preposterous. And the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn.'s goal of claiming 10 medals seems equally reasonable.

Neither number is absurd anymore, not since Bode Miller this week became the first U.S. male skier to win a World Cup slalom since Steve Mahre in 1983, and the first to win consecutive technical races since Phil Mahre that same year. And not since Todd Lodwick won a Nordic combined event earlier this month in Norway and had two more top-five finishes. And certainly not with moguls skiers Jeremy Bloom and Hannah Hardaway winning medals in their season opener.

“Ten medals is what we projected for USA athletes, and I still feel strongly we can achieve that,” said Alan Ashley, vice president/athletics for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn.

The reason for Ashley’s renewed optimism is Miller, who won a giant slalom at Val d’Isere Sunday, drove seven hours to Madonna diCampiglio, Italy, and won a night slalom fewer than 36 hours later. Miller is so hot, he won an exhibition slalom Tuesday that didn’t count in the World Cup standings.

“Any of our athletes on the podium during the year is a good indication they’re a medal contender in the Olympics,” Ashley said. “For him to win two races back-to-back is phenomenal. He’s a for-real competitor, that’s for sure.

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“From the standpoint of the team, the guys ski together every day, and for one to perform like that and step out gives everybody confidence.

“They’re not that far out, and they figure, ‘If he can win, so can I.’ It creates a positive environment.”

Miller has so far outdistanced his alpine teammates, but Ashley believes they will catch up.

“I’m happy with the men’s technical team,” he said, referring to slalom and giant slalom specialists. “We came out of Aspen [last month] with Bode second and just qualifying more people for the second run. The men’s speed team [downhill and super-giant slalom] had a rough time at Val d’Isere last weekend, but the women’s speed team has looked really good. Caroline [Lalive, third in the super-G] got a podium at Lake Louise, and if you look at Picabo [Street], Jonna [Mendes] and Kirsten Clark, they’ve all been in the hunt.”

For now, though, Miller is the star, as Daron Rahlves was when he won the super-G gold medal at last season’s world championships. “Bode has kind of fine-tuned his strategy,” Ashley said. “He’s famed for going to the wall, for being a make-or-break kind of guy. He’s a little more conservative. Not all that conservative, but balanced between caution and his go-for-it attitude.

“He’s clearly found the right blend.”

Match Game

Seeing Frank Carroll standing by the boards to support her at Friday’s Hershey’s Kisses figure skating competition gave Angela Nikodinov a reason to smile for the first time in a month.

“I feel kind of relieved I have someone that I can call my coach,” said Nikodinov, whose previous coach, Elena Tcherkasskaia, died of pancreatic cancer Nov. 12. “It feels good to not just be flying around out on a limb.”

Nikodinov hopes she and Carroll will continue to work together leading up to next month’s U.S. championships at Staples Center, which will determine the Olympic team. Carroll said extending their collaboration “seems like a go,” but they haven’t had a chance to resolve some details. Carroll worked with Michelle Kwan for nearly a decade before they parted ways in October; he coaches U.S. men’s champion Timothy Goebel and other students in El Segundo.

“The timing seems perfect because I don’t have Michelle anymore,” Carroll said. “I turned down Angela twice before, because I had Michelle and I didn’t think it fair to take on someone of that caliber when I had Michelle.

“I don’t have a girl [student] and I’ve worked very hard for four years. If I could have somebody in the Olympics and Angela could make it, that would be great.”

Nikodinov was close to Tcherkasskaia, who brought out her innate artistry and buoyed her confidence. The 21-year-old San Pedro resident finished third at the 2001 U.S. championships and fifth at the world meet under Tcherkasskaia’s guidance.

With Tcherkasskaia gravely ill, Nikodinov faltered in her long program at the Nations Cup event and finished third; after Tcherkasskaia died, Nikodinov finished third in the Cup of Russia and dropped from first after the short program to fourth at the NHK Trophy event. She missed qualifying for the Grand Prix Final in Kitchener, Canada, and was designated an alternate.

Goebel and Kwan lead the U.S. delegation at the Grand Prix Final, which starts Friday. A mini-Olympic preview, it features the top six men, women, pairs and dance teams based on points earned in six Grand Prix events.

“This month has been kind of a nightmare,” said Nikodinov, who planned to return home today after performing in a show Wednesday in Sarnia, Canada. “You don’t know what’s going to come next, but you just have to keep going.”

Carroll is with Goebel in Kitchener, so he and Nikodinov can’t discuss her programs until next week. “I’m sure he has some thoughts, but we haven’t even sat and talked about it,” she said. “I started pretty slow, but the more I practice them, the more comfortable I’ll feel.”

Every time she does, she will remember Tcherkasskaia. “Whenever I take the ice, I think of her, even when I go to practice,” she said. “I keep in my head what she would tell me. She’s always on my mind.”

Letting Things Slide

Who knew luge was so full of skulduggery?

Brian Martin of Palo Alto, who has earned a U.S. Olympic doubles berth with Mark Grimmette, said sliders go to great lengths to spy on rivals’ sleds.

“You never really want to leave your sled alone, because somebody might come and check it out,” said Martin, who won bronze with Grimmette at Nagano. “Two years ago, I would have said nobody has any secrets.... Now I think there are some secrets out there, and we’ve been trying everything to figure out what makes other people go faster.

“It’s kind of frustrating when you see people go faster than you on a run that appears to be worse. Your only thought is that it’s the sled, and you’re not really sure what they’re doing.”

No Flower Power

Fans attending the U.S. Figure Skating championships won’t be allowed to throw flowers onto the ice in tribute to their favorite performers. The ban was instituted in part because of safety concerns related to the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent anthrax scares, and also because any object on the ice poses a hazard to skaters.

“We’re asking people not to bring anything into the arena,” said Larry Kriwanek, chair of the LA2002 organizing committee. “Flowers have always been a problem. Even when they’re wrapped, the staples pop out and become a hazard.

“Sept. 11 made the U.S. Figure Skating Assn. move up a decision it was already going to make. Flowers were going to be eliminated. It was just a question of when.”

Fans will be allowed to buy small stuffed animals and toss those items onto the ice, because they will have been inspected and approved.

“What we don’t want is people bringing stuff into the arena and getting really long lines to get in,” Kriwanek said. “We’ve tried to develop an e-mail list of people who have contacted us and asked us questions. Just prior to the event we’ll e-mail them with our policy on cameras and our throwing-on-the-ice policy. We’re hoping to get 80% to 90% of the people who are coming.

“Any policy you do, you’re going to have some people who are unhappy.”

Here and There

Preliminary investigations into the death of World Cup super-G ski champion Regine Cavagnoud have zeroed in on possible negligence by French team trainer Xavier Fournier for allowing her to begin a practice run before ensuring the course was clear. Cavagnoud collided with German trainer Markus Anwander Oct. 29 on the Pitztal course in Austria and died of massive brain injuries two days later. Austrian prosecutor Heinrich Cede said initial inquiries suggest Fournier should have held Cavagnoud back, and added French and German teams probably did not coordinate their communications during the shared training session. “This does not yet mean that we prosecute him,” Cede said of Fournier.

Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura blasted Olympic torch relay planners for skipping his state on the 13,500-mile route from Atlanta to Salt Lake City. He has a point: Minnesota has always been well represented at the Winter Games, and it’s the home state of U.S. men’s hockey Coach Herb Brooks, as well as many other Olympians. “There should be an outcry from the public. Minnesota is known for its winters,” Ventura said. “We love our four seasons in this state and we face our winters head-on, straight into the wind. A little heat from the Olympic torch would be most welcome and appropriate.”

Berlin announced it won’t bid for the 2012 Summer Games. Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Stuttgart, Leipzig and Hamburg are still vying to be Germany’s nominee.... World champion long jumper Fiona May, a two-time Olympic silver medalist, will take a year off to have a baby.... Cathy Freeman, who hasn’t competed since she won gold in the 400 meters at the Sydney Games, resumed training and will compete March 7 at the Melbourne Track Classic in Australia.

Members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team will serve as an honor guard during the player introductions at the NHL All-Star game, to be played Feb. 2 at Staples Center. And in keeping with the All-Star game’s patriotic theme, uniformed members of the Air Force, L.A. Police Department, L.A. Fire Department, Post Office and New York Police Department will be stationed at each of the 60 entrances to the seating area during the national anthem. Each will hold a flag and will be bathed in a spotlight during the anthem.


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