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Saturday, February 16, 2002
U.S. men hope to sweep aerials

By Anne Marie Cruz
ESPN The Magazine

DEER VALLEY, Utah -- As the banners waved -- "USA, This is our house!" "Go big, or go home!" -- on this jackets-unzipped, April-warm afternoon, Don Bergoust read a poem for his son, Eric, the defending aerials champ. Wearing his reading glasses, he urged all of the competitors "to accept the challenge to fly with the Ace."

No problem there. The aerialists hucked themselves unconsciously off the 70× kickers, flipping and twisting 55 feet in the air to a Beastie Boy-heavy soundtrack. They shrugged off even the most awkward missed landings, getting up easily from involuntary splits, body-slamming tumbles down the slope and full-frontal face plants.

Meanwhile, Emily Cook, who had been the U.S.'s best medal hope, sat in the front row of the bleachers, wishing she too could shrug off her injury. But an injury to her left foot was keeping her a spectator here. Underneath the railing where her crutches were propped up was a banner that read, "USA Freestyle: Controlled Chaos."

Below, Cook's crutch-twin, Jacqui Cooper, the three-time world champ from Melbourne, Australia, looked on wistfully from the bullpen of TV cameras near the bottom of the jump. Cooper's dream also was dashed after her left knee ligament imploded during training on Monday. "Emily e-mailed me straightaway, as soon as she heard," Cooper said. "She was devastated, too. It was hard for me to come here today. But it's final. I can't jump, and the sooner you move on, the better."

From where Cooper was watching, she could greet her friends as they came off the jump, right before they skied on toward the smattering of journalists in the mixed zone. She scanned a start sheet looking for a name -- by the way, you gotta love official score sheets that include "flight plans" (i.e. each competitors' tricks) -- moving her index finger down the list until she stopped at Alexei Grichin of Belarus.

"That's my man," she said proudly. After four years of seeing each other at World Cup competitions, the two reigning world champs started dating. Cooper even donated skis from her signature line to the entire Belarus team because they didn't have the proper equipment.

"Alexei's been visiting me every day for about four or five hours, just sitting on the edge of my bed, making sure I'm taken care of," Cooper said. "He's been great, even though it's been disruptive to his Olympic program."

All that doting didn't seem so disruptive when Grichin launched his second jump: a quadruple-twisting triple flip, with one twist on the first flip, two twists on the second, one twist on the third. When Grichin landed cleanly, throwing his arms up in triumph, Cooper hollered and hopped up and down on her good right foot. Alexei had won the qualifier, edging Bergoust, "Bergy", by 7.41 points.

Still, all four American men made it through to the finals, where today's scores are wiped away, including Jeret "Speedy" Petersen, who was a surprise addition to the team, hometown favorite Joe Pack and Brian "Curdog" Currutt, buoyed by his fiancée, mogulist Hannah Hardaway, who was swathed in a red, white and blue scarf knitted by a friend's mom.

"Our goal is to go for broke and sweep the podium," said Bergy, who will do the same two quad-twisting triple flips he did in Lillehammer and in Nagano (the back full-double full-full, and the double full-full-full). "It's not unrealistic, and we need to start thinking about that. On my second jump, I knew I didn't have to go all out. And I didn't want to risk falling, so I landed a little too much on my heels. Hopefully, I'll bust out in the finals."

Bergy's bust-out won't include the quint -- i.e. three flips with five twists -- which has never been attempted at the Olympics, although Bergy practiced quints last summer.

"My form wasn't good enough," Bergy explained. "I decided I could get better scores doing quads."

But Grichin might just unveil one on Tuesday. "I might do the quint," he said. "It depends on how Bergoust scores. It felt good to beat him today, but I'll feel much happier when I've actually won the gold."

Alexei will have to do it without his sweetie: Jacqui is flying out tonight for surgery back in Oz next week.

"It'll be hard not to be here for him," Cooper said, with a long sigh. "But he has my heart. So it doesn't matter."

Anne Marie Cruz writes for ESPN The Magazine.