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Olympic Face-Offs - Ski Mag

Olympic Face-Offs

Face Shots
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daron rahlves

The battle for speed starts here.

Olympic ski racing is the place where predictions come to die. Favorites falter. Nobodies come out of nowhere to win gold. Take the 1998 men's downhill: Hermann Maier, the presumptive gold medalist, instead was splattered across TV screens as the most spectacular crash victim in Olympic history. And the winner was -- anybody? anybody? -- a Frenchman named Jean Luc Cretier. You never know.

So we won't bother with trying to predict what's going to happen. In fact, winning and losing interest us less than some of the good stories that inevitably develop as the Games go on. Here are the most intriguing match-ups as we see them:

Daron Rahlves vs. Austria

World champ vs. Olympic champ. American against Austrian, mano a mano. That's the way it was supposed to be in the Olympic downhill and super G. Then the Herminator got whacked this summer riding his motorcycle. Right leg crushed, Olympic hopes decimated.

But weep not for Team Austria. Austrians were all over the 2000-2001 World Cup standings: top four in downhill, top five in super G. Stephan Eberharter, Fritz Strobl, Pepi Strobl, Hannes Trinkl, Werner Franz, Peter Rzehak, Christoph Gruber, Hans Knauss, Andreas Schifferer -- all are medal contenders. Yet some will get the pre-Olympics ax; only four competitors from each nation can compete in each event.

For Rahlves, the last year and a half has been a roller-coaster ride. Going up: He won two downhills in one weekend in March of 2000 in Kvitfjell, Norway. Going down: He was disqualified a year later in Kvitfjell for wearing his start-number bib improperly. Up again: He followed up a third-place finish at Kitzbühel, the most important World Cup race of the year, with a gold-medal run in the World Championship super G.

"Gladiator," said Rahlves at the World Championships, "is my new favorite movie." It might also be the theme for the Olympic downhill and super G. The story line: Rahlves, in the title role, takes on a pack of Austrian lions.

Watch your back for: Norwegian Lasse Kjus, who, despite being slowed by a chronic and debilitating sinus infection, is "definitely a big-event player," according to Rahlves.

Janica Kostelic vs. Sarah Schleper and Kristina Koznick

This is one wacky cast of characters. In one corner, the renegade, who split bitterly with the national team because of an intimate relationship with her coach. In another corner, the wild-haired Phish and Widespread Panic fan, daughter of a Harley-riding guy named Buzz. And finally, in the third corner, the Croatian sensation, the world's best slalom skier who'd rather be an American pro football player.

The only common denominator is slalom-racing talent. First, Kristina Koznick, second in the world in slalom three years ago and seventh last year. She's now essentially a team unto herself, having left the U.S. Ski Team shortly after coach and boyfriend Dan Stripp got the boot in the spring of 2000 because of their then-purported relationship. There aren't a lot of warm, fuzzy feelings between the Ski Team coaches and Koz, nor between Koz and those who've criticized her failure to medal in the Olympics and World Championships. "It's silly in ski racing to focus on trying to peak on just that one day," says Koz. Maybe so. But she'd love to peak in Salt Lake and muzzle the skeptics.

Next, Sarah Schleper. Forget the explosion of blonde curls, the love of loud music, the facial glitter, the red-white-and-blue mouthguard, and even the tizzy she created for showing a little skin last year in SKIING Magazine. It's all something of a front for a sometimes shy and totally determined athlete. "She has a superwoman aura about her," says good friend Koznick. When Janica Kostelic was on a record-setting seven-race World Cup winning streak in slalom last year, the person who came closest to beating her was Schleper.

Which brings us to Kostelic,hose smooth, balanced style is deceptively fast. Her story is now legend: coached by her nonskiing father; slept in cars when traveling to races; a big, raw-boned 19-year-old tough enough to have come back from shredding four knee ligaments two years ago to dominate slalom racing last year. She's a Croatian living in an American pop-culture bubble -- a fan of football, Elvis, Die Hard, Dumb and Dumber, Kobe Bryant, and Dennis Rodman. ("He's the best. He's crazy.") Her hero is John Elway.

Oh yes, there's one thing other than talent that they all have in common. All three have stumbled recently in big events, coming up medal-less. Don't expect that to happen this time.

Erik Schlopy vs. Kjetil-Andre Aamodt

One guy is seeking his 16th Olympic and World Championship medal, a record. The other is still looking for his first. Yet both are among the favorites in the Olympic giant slalom. And both, in very different ways, understand living in obscurity.

Fed up with his own lackluster performance, Schlopy quit the U.S. Ski Team in 1995. When he began a comeback two years ago, few people noticed, and even fewer took it seriously. But by finishing third in the World Cup GS standings last year, Schlopy became the best American GS skier since his skiing hero, Phil Mahre, who won the World Cup GS title in 1983. "I've done what I've done in a way that no one else has done it," says Schlopy, with an iconoclast's pride.

The soft-spoken Aamodt always looks like he's two hours short of a full night's sleep, perhaps lulling the media into complacency. Herminator hype, Tomba mania, whatever -- something always overshadows Aamodt's accomplishments. At the 2001 World Championships, Maier, despite going winless, was a constant headline presence; Aamodt, winning gold in the combined and silver in GS, was back-page fodder. When Tommy Moe won gold in 1994, the guy in second was you-know-who. Abominable weather at the 1993 World Championships in Morioka, Japan, proved more newsworthy than some sleepy-eyed Norwegian winning gold in both slalom and GS.

You can feel all the love in the air. Says Aamodt of Schlopy: "He's a great athlete, a serious skier. I'm not surprised he's done as well as he has." Schlopy on Aamodt: "He's one of the best of all time -- smart, systematic, and calculating." Expect an all-out lovefest when the two climb onto the Olympic podium together.

Watch your back for: The smooth-skiing Michael von Gruenigen of Switzerland, and Bode Miller, the sometimes reckless, sometimes spectacular American returning from injury.

Caroline Lalive vs. Renate Goetschl

Friend or foe? The twain sometimes meet in ski racing, where alliances don't always form along national lines. So it is with the U.S.'s Caroline Lalive and Austria's Renate Goetschl. "She's always been gracious with me and eager to help me out," says Lalive of Goetschl. Says Goetschl of Lalive: "Liner a nickname given to Lalive by her coach, in reference to her tendency to straight-line courses is a great skier who can really make it happen."

The mutual respect comes in part from two of the few athletes who compete regularly in all racing disciplines, from slalom to downhill, an experience that has drawn them closer together.

They also have the shared experience of crashing in the 2001 World Championship combined event -- which combines two slalom runs and a downhill -- when both appeared all but certain to win medals. Hoping to erase that memory, they'll face off again as medal favorites in the Olympic combined.

Shared experience, shared respect, but not necessarily shared personalities. Lalive is the more cerebral of the two, an opera fan who dreams of going to med school. Goetschl, a Madonna fan, has been the more successful -- the overall World Cup champion in 2000 and the World Championship combined gold medalist in 1997. Lalive's career, on the other hand, has been a medical nightmare: injured back, knees, ankle, wrist. Still, last year was her best ever, topped by a second in the World Cup combined event. A fully healthy Lalive is one of the world's best all-around skiers.

"I don't want to try to figure out how everything will unfold," says Lalive of the Olympic combined. Fair enough. But failing to make the Olympic podium would be a big disappointment for these friendly foes.

Watch your back for: Janica Kostelic, who despite being the world's best slalom skier, prefers the speed and danger of downhill.knees, ankle, wrist. Still, last year was her best ever, topped by a second in the World Cup combined event. A fully healthy Lalive is one of the world's best all-around skiers.

"I don't want to try to figure out how everything will unfold," says Lalive of the Olympic combined. Fair enough. But failing to make the Olympic podium would be a big disappointment for these friendly foes.

Watch your back for: Janica Kostelic, who despite being the world's best slalom skier, prefers the speed and danger of downhill.

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