US gets grip on snow, ice

Who to watch as team readies for best-ever Winter Games

These have never truly been America's Games.

Sure, the United States has its share of Winter Olympic medals. It has even had those brief-but-brilliant moments - the hockey "miracle on ice," or Eric Heiden's five golds - when it felt like it almost belonged. Yet the Winter Games have always seemed more foreign than familiar, the province of those who are blanched by a lack of sun and see nothing at all peculiar about the word fjord.

The United States is a nation with one cross-country medal, one ski jumping medal, and no top-three biathletes in 80 years of competition. While it has never finished lower than third in the Summer Games, it has not finished higher than fifth in any Winter Games since Lake Placid in 1980.

Starting today, however, that cold streak will almost certainly end. The US team that has come to Salt Lake is as deep and talented as any in recent history, and most people expect America to shatter its previous record medal haul - a mere 13.

Of course, there are the Michelle Kwans and Casey FitzRandolphs - the figure and speed skaters who have traditionally succeeded at the Winter Games. But alongside them have risen stars from the new stunt sports like moguls and freestyle aerials - as well as a rare crop of American medal contenders in sports more evocative of the Matterhorn than middle America.

There's Todd Hays, a favorite to win the first US bobsled medal since the Eisenhower administration. Or Bode Miller, who this year has become the most dominant force in slalom - and the best hope in a generation to capture America's first-ever men's giant slalom medal. And there is Todd Lodwick, flirting with the podium in an event that has historically been one of America's worst: nordic combined.

These 17 days in Salt Lake will not likely push America to the top of the medal table, or make curling America's new national pastime. But a good result, boosted by home-field advantage, could mean a new measure of respect for America's winter athletes - both at home and abroad - and kindle America's often-meager interest in the "other" Olympic Games.

"It's going to take a medal to really put us on the map," says Lodwick, echoing the sentiment of a number of US athletes here.

Why medal drought should end

The reasons for America's historic winter hibernation are not difficult to discern. The Winter Games are essentially a Scandinavian creation, emerging out of a Norse winter sports festival held a century ago. Then, as now, many of the events were as much a celebration of a distinct and snowbound culture as a sporting event. While American kids grew up on sandlot diamonds and schoolyard gridirons, Swedes and Finns have chased each other on skis across the barren wastes of Lapland for centuries.

"These winter sports have almost been imposed upon America," says Jeffrey Segrave, an Olympic historian at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "In Europe, they are symbolic of a deeply embedded way of life."

Still, there are signs that America's commitment to success in the Winter Games is gradually growing. Several former football and track athletes brought into bobsledding years ago - including Hays - have now matured with the experience of several Olympics and form the nucleus of a team favored to medal in both the two-man and four-man events. The ski jumping team has been rejuvenated since the hiring of Finland's former head coach, and a similar move in skeleton - one of the new events at the Salt Lake games - has made the US the top team in the world.

"By getting ... Ryan [Davenport], we got the best skeleton coach in the world," says Lincoln DeWitt, who won the World Cup circuit last season. "Since he came on, we've had at least one American on the podium in every World Cup event."

The very presence at the Olympics of this luge-like event, where competitors go down face first, is a good sign for the United States. Like women's bobsledding - the other new event in these Games - skeleton has been a better fit for Americans than the ancient nordic or alpine disciplines. So, too, have been other new events added since 1992, ranging from snowboarding to freestyle ski jumping.

More events, more medals

To some degree, however, the introduction of these new events dilutes any effort to claim this as the best Winter Olympic generation in American history. Given that there are 78 events being contested here, America would need to win 39 medals to match the output of the 1952 team, which won 11 medals in only 22 events. Some think the US total could push above 30, but a safer forecast would be about 22 (see list of medal favorites).

More realistically, the US could assure the best Winter Olympics in a half century if it takes 25 medals, besting Lake Placid's 12 medals in 38 events. Competing on home soil played a big role in those Games, and history suggests it will again. America has never finished lower than third in any Olympics it hosted - Winter or Summer.

With the Games at home, athletes say they are comfortable with the culture, familiar with the venues, and inspired by the partisan crowds. "Since I've been competing, we've never had an advantage," says Brian Shimer, a bobsled driver who has taken part in the past four Winter Games, and missed out on a bronze in Nagano by two hundredths of a second. "If it's not going to happen this year, it's not going to happen."

The Games on TV

Anticipated schedule for NBC, excluding late-night coverage. Check CNBC and MSNBC for additional coverage, including many Hockey games. The Eastern-Time slots apply to all of the country except the Pacific time zone.

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 8 DAY 1

8 - 11:30 p.m. E.T. | 7:30 - 11 p.m. P.T.

Opening ceremony

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 9 DAY 2

3 - 6 p.m. E.T. | 12 - 3 p.m. P.T.

Cross-country skiing: Men's 30K

Speed skating: Men's 5,000 meters

Cross-country skiing: Women's 15K

8 - 11:30 p.m. E.T. | 7:30 - 11 p.m. P.T.

Nordic combined: Individual jumping

Freestyle skiing: Women's moguls final

Figure skating: Pairs short program

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 10 DAY 3

3 - 5 p.m. E.T. | 12 - 2 p.m. P.T.

Snowboarding: Women's halfpipe

Speed skating: Women's 3,000 meters

8 - 11:30 p.m. E.T. | 7:30 - 11 p.m. P.T.

Snowboarding: Women's halfpipe final

Alpine skiing: Men's downhill

Ski jumping: Individual 90 meter

Nordic combined: Individual cross-country

Luge: Men's singles competition

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 11 DAY 4

4 - 5 p.m. E.T. | 3 - 4 p.m. P.T.

Luge: Men's singles

Snowboarding: Men's halfpipe

8 - 11:30 p.m. E.T. | 7:30 - 11 p.m. P.T.

Speed skating: Men's 500 meters

Luge: Men's singles finals

Alpine skiing: Women's downhill

Snowboarding: Men's halfpipe final

Figure skating: Pairs long program

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 12 DAY 5

4 - 5 PM ET | 3 - 4 p.m. P.T.

Cross-country skiing: Men's 15K

8 - 11:30 p.m. E.T. | 7:30 - 11 p.m. P.T.

Ski jumping: Individual 120 meter

Freestyle skiing: Men's moguls final

Speed skating: Men's 500 meters

Luge: Women's singles

Figure skating: Men's short program

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 13 DAY 6

4 - 5 p.m. E.T. | 3 - 4 p.m. P.T.

Biathlon: Men's 10K sprint

8 - 11:30 p.m. E.T. | 7:30 - 11 p.m. P.T.

Speed skating: Women's 500 meters

Luge: Women's singles finals

Short track: Men's 1,000 meters

Short track: Women's 1,500-meter final

Alpine: Men's combined (downhill & slalom)

Ski jumping: Individual 120K

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 14 DAY 7

4 - 5 p.m. E.T. | 3 - 4 p.m. P.T.

Snowboarding: Women's parallel giant slalom

8 PM - 12 p.m. E.T. | 7:30 - 11:30 p.m. P.T.

Figure skating: Men's long program

Alpine: Women's combined (downhill & slalom)

Speed skating: Women's 500 meters

Snowboarding: Men's parallel giant slalom

Nordic combined: Team jumping

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 15 DAY 8

4 - 5 p.m. E.T. | 3 - 4 p.m. P.T.

Snowboarding: Parallel giant slalom (M&W)

8 - 11:30 p.m. E.T. | 7:30 - 11 p.m. P.T.

Figure skating: Ice dancing

Snowboarding: Parallel giant slalom, (M&W)

Ice hockey: Men's (US vs. Finland)

Luge: Doubles finals

Nordic combined: Team 4 x 5K relay

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 16 DAY 9

1 - 6 p.m. E.T. | 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. P.T.

Ice hockey: Women's (US vs. Finland)

Biathlon: Men's pursuit, Women's pursuit

Curling: Women's US vs. Russia

8 - 11 p.m. E.T. / 8 - 11 p.m. P.T.

Alpine skiing: Men's super-giant slalom

Short track: Men's 1,000-meter final

Short track: Women's 500-meter final

Freestyle skiing: Men's and women's aerials

Bobsled: Two-man

Speed skating: Men's 1,000 meters

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 17 DAY 10

7 - 11 p.m. E.T. | 7 - 11 p.m. P.T.

Figure skating: Ice dancing, original dance

Alpine skiing: Women's super giant slalom

Speed skating: Women's 1,000 meters

Bobsled: Two-man finals

Cross-country skiing: Men's 4x10K relay

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 18 DAY 11

1 - 6 p.m. E.T. | 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. P.T.

Ice hockey: Men's US vs. qualifying-round winner

Ice hockey: Men's (Russia vs. Finland)

8 - 11:30 p.m. E.T.| 7:30 - 11 p.m. P.T.

Figure skating: Ice dancing, free dance

Ski jumping: Team 120 meter

Freestyle skiing: Women's aerials finals

Biathlon: Women's 4 x 7.5K relay

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 19 DAY 12

4 - 5 p.m. E.T.| 3 - 4 p.m. P.T.

Cross-Country Skiing: Men's and women's sprint

8 - 11:30 p.m. E.T. | 7:30 - 11 p.m. P.T.

Figure skating: Women's short program

Bobsled: Women's finals

Freestyle Skiing: Men's aerial finals

Speed skating: Men's 1,500 meters

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 20 DAY 13

4 - 5 p.m. E.T. | 3 - 4 p.m. P.T.

Biathlon: Men's 4 x 7.5K relay

8 - 11:30 p.m. E.T. | 7:30 - 11 p.m. P.T.

Alpine skiing: Women's slalom

Skeleton: Men's and women's finals

Short track: Women's relay, Men's 1,500-m

Ice hockey: Men's quarterfinal

Speed skating: Women's 1,500 meters

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 21 DAY 14

4 - 5 p.m. E.T. | 3 - 4 p.m. P.T.

Cross-country skiing: Women's 4 x 5K relay

8 PM - 12 p.m. E.T. | 7:30 - 11:30 p.m. P.T.

Figure skating: Women's long program

Alpine skiing: Men's giant slalom

Ice hockey: Women's gold-medal game

Nordic combined: Sprint, jumping 120 meter

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 22 DAY 15

4 - 5 p.m. E.T. | 3 - 4 p.m. P.T.

Speed skating: Men's 10,000 meters

8 - 11:30 p.m. E.T. | 7:30 - 11 p.m. P.T.

Figure skating: Champions gala

Alpine skiing: Women's giant slalom

Bobsled: Four-man

Nordic combined: Sprint, 7.5K cross-country

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 23 DAY 16

1:30 - 5:30 p.m. E.T. | 10:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. P.T.

Ice hockey: Men's bronze medal game

Speed skating: Women's 5,000 meters

8 - 11:30 p.m. E.T. | 7:30 - 11 p.m. P.T.

Alpine skiing: Men's slalom

Short track: Women's 1000-meter final

Short track: Men's 500-m final, relay final

Cross-country skiing: Men's 50K

Bobsled: Four-man finals

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 24 DAY 17

2:30 - 6 p.m. E.T. | 11:30 a.m. - 3 p.m. P.T.

Ice hockey: Men's gold-medal game

8 - 11 p.m. E.T. / 8 - 11 p.m. P.T.

Cross-country skiing: Women's 30K

Closing ceremony

Source: www.nbcolympics.com

Top US medal favorites

Bode Miller (slalom, giant slalom)

Kristina Koznick (slalom)

Eric Bergoust (Freestyle aerials)

Jeremy Bloom (moguls)

Hannah Hardaway (moguls)

Ross Powers (snowboarding halfpipe)

Todd Hays (two- and four-man bobsled)

Jean Racine (two-woman bobsled)

Chris Soule (skeleton)

Tristan Gale (skeleton)

Michelle Kwan (figure skating)

Sarah Hughes (figure skating)

Timothy Goebel (figure skating)

Jennifer Rodriguez (speed skating, 1,000 meter)

Casey FitzRandolph (speed skating, 500 meter)

Apolo Anton Ohno (speed skating, 500-, 1,000-, and 1,500 meter, relay)

Women's hockey

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