What to watch for on Torino slopes
Sunday, Feb. 12 -- Men's Downhill
American downhiller Daron Rahlves, now in the last year of his career, had set four career goals for himself.
• World Cup victory in Beaver Creek. Colo., downhill? Check.
• Become the first American to win the most treacherous and historic downhill in the world, the famed Hannenkahm in Kitzbuhel, Austria? Check.
• World Cup downhill title? He's already halfway there.
• What remains? The coveted Olympic gold medal, which carries the unofficial title of "King of the Mountain."
Rahlves is the winningest downhiller in American ski racing history and is the one to watch on the Sestriere-Borgata course. He has won the only World Cup race held there and loves the course's nonstop action and challenges. Rahlves will be pushed by his teammate, über-racer Bode Miller. If the upstart Americans were to pull this off, it will be a huge slap in the face to downhill's traditional power, Austria, which is ski racing's version of the 1957 Yankees. The Austrian's current Mickey Mantle: Michael Walchhofer. Their Joe DiMaggio: Fritz Strobl, the defending Olympic champ.
Tuesday, Feb. 14 -- Men's Combined
Bizarre outcomes are the norm, since the downhillers hate short turns and the slalom specialists often fret in the start house of the downhill. Miller won a silver in this event in 2002, remarkable since he sometimes finds finishing just one run to be more than he can handle. Never forget Norwegian Kjetil Andre Aamodt, who has 19 Olympic and World Championship medals and will retire after this year. The Austrian Benni Raich is Mr. Consistency and is another medal favorite.
Wednesday, Feb. 15 -- Women's Downhill
If you miss Picabo Street and her audacious confidence and you like big, strong girls who make powerful sweeping arcs on even the toughest courses, American Lindsay Kildow will make you feel right at home. Kildow has already won two World Cup downhills this year and is arguably the favorite going into Torino. Kildow is an all-events skier, unlike Street, who was a speed specialist.
Also watch veteran Austrians Michaela Dorfmeister and Renate Goetschl, who have been around a combined 25 years on the World Cup circuit. It's that kind of experience you need in this event. With fast skiers like Julia Mancuso and Kirsten Clark, who is coming back strong from a slew of injuries, an American on the podium here is very possible.
Friday, Feb. 17 -- Women's Combined
Like the men's combined, this is a strange marriage of skills, a crapshoot of consistency. Any slalom ski racer who can hang on for the downhill has a legitimate shot at the podium, since they can make up huge amounts of time in this cumulatively timed event. Favorites are Croatian sensation Janica Kostelic (a triple Olympic gold medalist in Salt Lake City) and Swedish bulldog Anja Parson, who makes up in power what she lacks in grace. These two are clear and away ahead of the rest of the top 15 and, in many ways, will consider their results a settling of a near-blood feud. Their rivalry stands above the competition. Americans in the hunt include Kildow and her counterpart, Julia Mancuso.
Sunday, Feb. 19 -- Women's super-G
"It's like an AutoStrada," said Renate Goetschl, who likened the run to the smooth, unchallenging highways of Italian fame. Then, the lawyers got involved. Speed specialists, like decorated German powerhouse Hilde Gerg, Austrian Michaela Dorfmeister and American Lindsay Kildow, petitioned skiing's governing body and got them to make the Olympic super-G course tougher, faster and hairier. So the super-G will once again be a test of forza, Italian for strength. Watch Kildow, Mancuso and Kirsten Clark for the home team.
Monday, Feb. 20 -- Men's Giant Slalom
This will be a fun one. After two Italians went 1-2 in Alta Badia, Italy, in a World Cup giant slalom earlier this year, the crowd went completely pazzo. Imagine what will happen if the two Italian aces, Massimiliano Blardone and Davide Simoncelli, repeat the feat. It will sound a lot like, well, Beaver Creek, Colo., where Americans Bode Miller, Daron Rahlves and Erik Schlopy finished 1-2-4 and the crowd lost it.
For the uninitiated, GS is filled with technical demands, including a need for a subtle touch on the snow, which all these men have, plus a real and primal need for speed. Even for the layperson, GS looks and feels like the purest form of ski racing, filled with turns, terrain changes and thrilling 50 mph speeds. GS has all the nonstop action of slalom, with some of the velocity of the speed events. Fasten your cintura di sicurezza.
Wednesday, Feb. 22 -- Women's Slalom
(For this reporter, a complaint about women's slalom must be lodged against the 17 women who finished in front of her in Lillehammer in 1994!) That aside, this will be another battle between the Croatian Kostelic and the Swede Parson. The slalom paradox: it is not the fastest discipline, but the fewest competitors finish the event. The 60 gates in each of the slalom runs simply come too fast for many, and an athlete's Olympic hopes can be dashed in a matter of seconds.
Slalom puts an enormous premium on quickness and agility. It is far from the most dangerous ski racing discipline, but it is easily the most nerve-wracking. Favorites include American Kristina Koznick, who has been a perennial powerhouse, but has come up short in the big events; and free spirit Sarah Schleper, who won the last World Cup slalom of the year in 2005, but is making a heroic and timely recovery from back surgery. The strong Austrian contingent led by Marlies Schild, Nicole Hosp and Kathrin Zettel, will threaten for at least one medal if not all three.
Saturday, Feb. 25 -- Men's Slalom
The Italians once had Tomba. Now, they have Rocca. Giorgio, that is, the winner of the first three World Cup slaloms this season and the odds-on favorite to take the podium in Torino. A top-three finish under the lights at this night-scheduled event would guarantee that Rocca would never pay for another grappa in his life. But not so fast, Giorgio.
American upstart Ted Ligety (as in Ligety-split) has surged to the top of the World Cup standings by showing no signs of nerves that beset so many rookies in this ice-bound high-wire act. The 21-year-old Ligety grew up in the shadow of the Olympic slalom hill in Park City, Utah, and has, in a matter of months, gone from first-timer to world-beater. Oh, and then there's that Bode guy, who happens to have earned his first World Cup victory in & slalom. If Miller can make it to the bottom twice, he'll contend. Meanwhile, don't count out Austrian slice-and-dicer Benni Raich, who is in the hunt. Finland's Kalle Pallander and Canada's Thomas Grandi fill out the list of viable challengers.
Carrie Sheinberg, three-time national ski racing champion and top American finisher in the alpine slalom event at the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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