Competition Fierce for U.S. Olympic Ski Team

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Wengen, Switzerland Jan. 13, 2002 (AP by Erica Bulman)--The U.S. men's ski team has a numbers problem, and that's great news for the Americans with the Olympics less than a month away.

A record five Americans qualified for the second run of a World Cup slalom this weekend, one more skier than berths available per country per discipline for the Olympics, which get under way in Salt Lake City on Feb. 8.

``It's the pressure of qualifying for the Olympics,'' said Sacha Gros, who finished 20th in the event won by Croatia's Ivica Kostelic. ``If they're only taking the four best guys then everyone is going to fight.

``As the games are approaching, we're all attacking and stepping it up a bit.''

Bode Miller, who this season became the first American to win a slalom and a giant slalom since 1983, was the top U.S. finisher this weekend at sixth and was joined in the second run by Erik Schlopy, Chip Knight, Gros and World Cup rookie Tom Rothrock.

Though only Miller finished in the top 10, the results were significant for all.

Schlopy, who like Miller has already secured his Olympic berth, finished 11th, his best result this season and an encouraging sign for the Park City, Utah, resident who's been troubled by persistent bronchitis since last summer.

Knight, of Stowe, Vt., met one of the top Olympic criteria, producing his second top 20 result with a 17th. Gros finished among the top 20 for the first time this season, while Rothrock, of Cashmere, Wash., scored his first career World Cup points with a 25th-place finish.

``It was a big day for us, the team was just outstanding,'' said Jesse Hunt, the U.S. team's technical coach. ``Bode was just fabulous in the second run. He just had a hard time in the first run because of a problem with a boot.

``This was also a great confidence boost for Erik.''

The racers are looking for more.

``None of us had really great runs,'' said Gros, a resident of Vail, Colo. ``Hopefully we'll have a lot more in the top 15 from now on.''

At the Olympics, the U.S. men will be seeking to land at least one skier in the top three of a slalom, having been shut out of every Olympic or world championship podium since Phil and Steve Mahre swept gold and silver, respectively, at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo.

``We'll all be out to prove something at the Olympics,'' said Miller, of Franconia, N.H. ``Everyone says how the Americans always seem to pop big ones at the big events like Daron (Rahlves) who won the super-G at the last worlds in St. Anton or Tommy Moe who won the downhill at the Lillehammer Olympics. But the technical skiers haven't done that in a long, long time.''

The American technical skiers will have another chance to impress Olympic selectors next weekend at a World Cup slalom in Kitzbuehel, Austria. There will also be a downhill, super-G and the season's second and final combined.