Torino time: Things to watch
Bode Miller may not care about medals, but by now his American reputation depends on them. Yes, he is one of the best U.S. skiers of all time. Yes, he won the World Cup. But all of the controversy and magazine covers make his performance in Torino less of a showcase and more of a proving ground.
Most U.S. fans have never seen Miller ski, so they will want more than the daredevil performance he always provides. Two months ago, a blazing run and a highlight-reel tumble would have added to his growing legend. Now, a DNF would basically leave everyone wondering whether all of the hype was a waste of time.
His World Cup season has been problematic so far. His knee obviously bothers him, so much that his trademark feathering (ditching speed and turning going into gates) has lacked its usual crispness. Miller has a special ability to bend his knee almost inward without rotating his hip, enabling him to make turns more quickly than most skiers. If that knee isn't at full capacity, Miller becomes a lot more human. His performance will depend more on that knee than anything, because Miller is simply too fearless to choke.
Bode's expectations for himself don't match his talk. Check out the new DVD, "Flying Downhill," for a glimpse of Bode watching his 2002 Olympics slalom run. He looks like Peyton Manning after the Steelers game in January. The guy is as competitive as any super-athlete, and he wants to win. Badly.
Best U.S. Ski Team ever?
Drowned out by all of the Bode hoopla, and the stories of Hermann Maier's return to the Olympics from a motorcycle accident that cost him the 2002 Games, the U.S. Ski Team could actually outmedal the Austrians for the first time. That feat would not only go down as one of the bigger Winter Olympic upsets in decades, but it would also offer a strong counterpunch to those who say snowboarding has eclipsed skiing in the States.
Sure, Bode's interesting, but the rest of the team does not lack story lines. Daron Rahlves was right when he said, "If it was based on performance, I would have all the covers." Rahlves is the anti-Bode: He is agreeable, utterly professional and as smooth on his skis as anyone in the world. He's also the most accomplished American speed skier, with 12 World Cup wins.
Rahlves is a demon during the "last split" -- he still made the podium in Kitzbuhel after a rather slow first three-quarters of the downhill -- and he loves the Sestriere course. He's also a favorite on the circuit. He went last in the postrace press conference in Kitzbuhel, even though he placed third, and one reporter actually confessed in front of a packed room that he became a journalist to cover Rahlves. Then, the reporter thanked and congratulated Rahlves on his career achievements. Rahlves smiled sheepishly.
This U.S. team might also be the deepest ever. One name to learn is that of Steve Nyman, who actually looks somewhat like Miller on his skis. Nyman's as entertaining off the slopes as he is on them, with a sharp wit and a slacker drawl. He looks and acts like an extra in "Dazed and Confused." Doesn't hurt that he's dating Julia Mancuso, who's a star on the women's side. Nyman will be the darling of the 2010 Games.
We're going to go ahead and say women's hockey might actually be more interesting than the men's game in Torino. U.S. coach Ben Smith inexplicably ditched legend Cammi Granato in 2005, saying she was outperformed in tryouts. That's hardly believable, and her former teammates reacted with shock, sadness and eight losses to Canada in 10 exhibition games since April.
The Americans have played better recently, but it's hard to see how any team without Granato beats any team with her. And it's even harder to see how any team without Granato can beat any team with Canadian icon Hayley Wickenheiser. The U.S. has standouts in Angela Ruggiero, Sarah Parsons, Krissy Wendell and goalie Chanda Gunn, but anything less than a strong silver in these Games will make Smith look petty at best. By the way, Granato is a commentator for NBC.
Red, White, Blue ... and Gray?
The U.S. men's hockey team has also left itself open for criticism. While older Canadian players such as Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman politely stepped aside for a youth movement, American Jeremy Roenick threatened to cheer for Canada if left off the team. He'll be home for the Games, perhaps watching from his couch in maple-leaf-dotted pajamas, but the U.S. team still seems a bit old.
Chris Chelios, despite his awesome credentials and continued excellence as a Red Wing, will captain the team at age 44. Derian Hatcher can punish, but can he stop anyone on the large Olympic sheet? Couple that with the Americans' goaltending concerns. Robert Esche, Rick DiPietro and John Grahame all have solid games, but none has All-Star status. And Ryan Miller broke his thumb earlier this year, and will be in Torino in a backup capacity.
Now, add the fact that the U.S. plays its first game only three days after the start of the NHL Olympic break, and you've got a team that cannot take any medal for granted, let alone gold. The Americans should have taken more younger players, such as Phil Kessel and Jack Johnson, but hey, miracles happen.
Perhaps it doesn't even matter. Canada's B team might be stronger than any other A team. Where to start? Dany Heatley? Joe Thornton? Simon Gagne? Jarome Iginla? Look for Todd Bertuzzi to earn some forgiveness for his past sins, as well. But all discussion of the favorites must end with Martin Brodeur, who has a gold medal, a World Cup title, and three Stanley Cups on his résumé. The Swedes and Czechs have a ton of talent, but a Canadian loss would go down as a serious upset.
Kwan and done?
Too bad the world's best figure skater -- 15-year-old Japanese dynamo Mao Asada -- is too young to compete in Torino. (Who's making these rules, David Stern?) But story lines remain, starting with the likely golden girl, Russia's Irina Slutskaya. She's overcome a heart ailment and family illness to dominate the field over the last year. Sasha Cohen, though unproven in big events, has momentum and athleticism on her side. And Carolina Kostner, the home country's 18-year-old darling, will carry the Italian flag at Opening Ceremonies.
Then there's the Susan Lucci of winter sports, Michelle Kwan. She's captivated, confused and confounded us with her string of misfortune and injury interspersed with brilliance. Now's her chance to steal the Games with that long-lost, gold medal winning performance.
Realistically, her chances aren't great. She is 25, which is about 85 in skater years. But that might actually help as she faces little of the pressure that often crushes figure skating favorites. A good performance will seem like a farewell tour, while a great performance could bring us an all-time Winter Games memory.
Then again, a poor performance will raise questions about whether she belongs in Torino in the first place. On the bright side, it would also create a nice story line for Vancouver, where Emily Hughes can rebound from this year's snub and grab the gold once held by her now-famous older sister, Sarah.
Which cowboy strikes gold?
Speed skating has more mavericks than Mark Cuban. Chad Hedrick, appropriately from Texas, dumped his inline skating career (and his gambling jones) for colder climes and now wants to match team doctor Eric Heiden's five-golds-in-one-Games standard. Shani Davis, who became the first black athlete to make a speed skating team in 2002, will become the first black athlete to skate at the Olympics, in Torino. Apolo Anton Ohno, who fell in Salt Lake and enraged the South Korean team by doing so, has just as many female fans in love with his soul patch as the outspoken Davis has detractors. And throw in long-trackers Derrick Parra, Casey FitzRandolph and Joey Cheek, the jokester who is applying to Harvard in his spare time.
It all adds up to enough entertainment -- and 10-gallon talk -- to warrant another NBC channel. The team won 11 medals in Salt Lake, and Ohno's a lot better four years later (just ask him). The big question is whether he can hold off the skaters from South Korea and Japan. Bet on the Americans to set a national medal record in Torino, but also bet on that record to stand for a long, long time.
Can Flowers grow in mud?
Seems like the only skeleton worth discussing lately is the one that fell out of Tim Nardiello's closet. Sexual harassment allegations were reported in a New York Times story, and although an investigation turned up no credible evidence, Nardiello will not be allowed to coach this month.
And with Salt Lake hero Jim Shea Jr. now retired and men's skeleton fave Zach Lund still emerging from the shadows of his Rogaine-induced positive drug test, the hope for redemption in the sliding sports rests with Vonetta Flowers.
She raised eyebrows four years ago when she switched teammates at the last minute and pushed Jill Bakken to victory. That made her the first black athlete to win a gold medal in bobsled. Then she had twin sons, one of whom recently had surgery to repair his hearing. Flowers has taken her family on the World Cup circuit and will now try to win another gold with Jean Prahm (formerly Racine), her original partner heading into Salt Lake. And for those still unimpressed, Flowers was one of People's 50 Most Beautiful People in 2002. Team USA could use a little more of her sunshine this month.
Who's the face of snowboarding?
This is not your dropout older brother's snowboarding. Gretchen Bleiler is about as toxic as Charmin with her sweet smile, Ohio upbringing and lifelong dream to win a gold medal. She even had doubts about going to Torino when she trained in New Zealand, feeling the pressure of Olympics buildup detracted from the purity of her sport.
"Rival" Lindsey Jacobellis is shilling for Visa and Hannah Teter is only extreme in comparison to the other two. Kelly Clark, who has been wrongfully overshadowed after her stirring gold-medal performance in 2002, overcame post-Olympic depression to return and defend her title. Though they are ferocious competitors, they pale in comparison to the renegade U.S. Ski Team. Dare we call them "Tame USA"?
Then, there's Shaun White, who is hardly a fugitive, but at least looks like something out of central casting. With big hair to go with his big air, White dazzled at Winter X Games X and does the same on a skateboard at Summer X. His final run in Aspen brought chills and almost made his competitors look boring. White's not even 20, so he may steal the half-pipe glory from the beauties on the women's side.
Which cloud will form?
Seems like every Olympics, especially every Winter Olympics, has some sort of controversy. In Salt Lake, of course, we had Skategate, where Canada's Sale and Pelletier were jobbed by two conspiring Russian and French judges. A new points system ensued, and as many eyes will rest upon that as on the actual skating.
We already have our first candidate: The Rick Tocchet gambling scandal. Tocchet's boss, of course, is Team Canada executive director and hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, whose wife, Janet Jones, has been linked to the investigation. Questions will fly in Torino, and the closer the allegations come to Gretzky himself, the bigger the threat to not only Canadian hockey, but the NHL as a whole.
Also, the Olympics always means drug intrigue, and Torino will bring an unprecedented level of testing. There will be 1,200 drug tests to be carried out in Torino, a 71-percent increase from the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Some reports indicate that some athletes will be targeted for testing based on tips from informants. International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge recently told The Associated Press that testers are zeroing in on athletes who show a suspicious improvement in their level of performance. "You have to know what's happening in the locker rooms, you have to know what's happening at the grassroots level," Rogge said. "That's the best way to work."
And though the terrorism fears of Salt Lake and Athens have waned, the potential for disaster has not. The world will be watching, and that is not always a good thing.
Whose star is born?
The Olympics are all about underdogs, and since Bode has taken the "under" out of his underdog status, these Games are waiting for a hero. And that's how it should be, since the best Olympic stories show up as revelations.
Maybe it'll be Kwan, who could be the Dan Jansen of Torino if she finally breaks through. But more likely it's a new name, someone unexpected, someone unknown, following in the footsteps of Mike Eruzione, Eddie the Eagle and Sarah Hughes. Maybe it's Gunn, who has overcome epilepsy to tend goal for the women's hockey team. Or it could be Todd Hays, who is angling to become the first American men's bobsledder to win gold since 1948.
We're all a little sick of the commercialization of the Games, but no one is sick of the sight of a tear-drenched nobody watching all of his or her hard work turn to gold. Even the most jaded of us have that to anticipate. We kinda like Sarah Konrad, a 37-year-old geologist, cross-country skier and a shooter. Just once, we'd like to see a biathlete on "Leno."
Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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