Look Out For the Lunch Bucket Brigade

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Snowbasin, Utah Feb. 10, 2002--Lasse Kjus of Norway sits in the finish area of the Snowbasin Olympic downhill chatting casually on his cell phone. Wearing a rather unfashionable, drab one-piece warmup suit with a big wide belt--and showing nary a waist--he looks more like an aging Joe Lunch Bucket than a champion ski racer. But by at least one important measure, the 31-year-old Kjus has just become the second most successful alpine racer in history. Here at the 2002 Olympics, it seems like hardly anyone notices.

Kjus finished with the silver medal Sunday in the men's downhill, sandwiched between the high flying Austrians, gold medalist Fritz Strobl and bronze winner Stephan Eberharter, the golden boy of the 2002 World Cup. While the Austrians have led the World Cup all season and have grabbed all the headlines, the balding Kjus had not sniffed a podium. Yet Sunday he again rose to the occasion to capture his 14th medal in an Olympic or World Championships, a feat only one other skier has eclipsed--teammate Kjetil Andre Aamodt, who just so happened to finish in fourth on Sunday, barely out of the medals.

Kjus and Aamodt, 30, are the Lunch Bucket Brigade of ski racing. They don't talk big, seek attention or act like rock stars. They just show up at work on time and win major ski competitions when the pressure is at its absolute highest. And they do it more often than anyone in the history of the sport.

The soft-spoken Kjus appears at first glance to sport an impressive beer gut, but next you'll notice that his powerful thighs are wider than his waist. He set a record unlikely to ever be challenged by winning a medal in all five events of the 1999 World Championships in Vail, Colo., and he has also collected two World Cup overall titles. But Kjus suffers from sinus conditions, and he has often had difficulty competing for an entire season.

To prepare for the grueling Olympics, in which he will compete in four or five events over a two-week period, he spent five days in Arizona playing 36 holes of golf a day. It did wonders for his sinuses, and his skiing, too.

Aamodt is the consummate gym rat, an endorphin freak who is likely to play several games of basketball after he's done ski racing for the day. He burst upon the international scene in 1993 in the World Championships in Morioka, Japan, where he won three medals and was a favorite for a fourth in the super G until that event was cancelled. While the rest of the field immediately dashed for airplane flights out of Japan as the news went out over the PA system, Aamodt lingered in the start shack for a full 10 minutes, visualizing the race he would have run and wondering what might have been.

Killy. Thoeni. Stenmark. Mahre. Zurbriggen. Tomba. Maier. None of these great champions came close to equaling the major competition record of the two unheralded members of the Lunch Bucket Brigade. The legendary Marc Girardelli is third on the list, with 13 major medals.

In these Olympics, Kjus and Aamodt will go head to head in the super G, combined and GS. They are among the favorites in super G and GS, and they are prohibitive favorites in the combined, where their all event skills are unrivalled. Aamodt will also race the slalom.

"Yeah, I have 14 medals now," acknowledged Kjus in the finish corral at Snowbasin. "Kjetil is for sure going to win some medals. It's going to take a really good Olympics to get the same amount of medals he has."

And it's going to be really fun to watch. Don't miss it.