They aim higher, faster, farther

When the Winter Olympics begin this Friday, about 2,500 athletes from around the world will demonstrate just how fast they can go, how long they can compete, or how graceful they can be on the snow and ice of Turin, Italy.

Snowboard cross makes its Olympic debut as a demonstration sport in Turin. It joins the halfpipe and parallel giant slalom as a third snowboarding event. In snowboard cross, four snowboarders challenge one another in a chaotic race to the bottom.

Other supercharged racing events at the Olympics include speedskating, where the races range from 500 to 10,000 meters, and the sledding events of bobsled, luge, and skeleton, where athletes reach speeds of 80 to 90 m.p.h. Among the five events in alpine skiing, the highest speeds are usually reached in the downhill event.

Head-to-head matchups on the ice include one of the oldest Olympic sports, ice hockey, and one of the newest, curling. On the artistic side, figure skaters demonstrate their jumping ability combined with graceful and delicate dance sequences.

You can easily follow the Games online. Check out the following websites for more information about each Olympic discipline, your favorite athletes, the schedule, and results: www.nbcolympics.com; www.torino2006.org; www.usoc.org; www.olympic.org

Off to the Olympics

Elena Hight hasn't thought about her goals for the Olympics. She's been too busy thinking about getting there. "My goal in the first place was to make it," she says. "So I guess I accomplished the goal."

The 16-year-old is the youngest member of the 2006 US Olympic snowboarding team. She will compete in the halfpipe division on Feb. 13.

In the halfpipe, competitors weave down a sloped half-cylinder dug into the snow and perform aerial tricks by launching themselves above the rim of the "pipe." Each run is scored by the judges.

Elena is known for her spectacular spinning. At 13, she became the first female snowboarder to land a 900, a trick made up of 2-1/2 revolutions.

"It's a scary trick because you're landing blind," says Elena. "You don't see the landing until you're already there."

Although this is her Olympic debut, she has been competing on the amateur and professional circuits since 2003. Elena, who was born in Hawaii, learned how to snowboard from her dad when she was 6. Her family moved to California when she was 7. Soon after, she started competing as an amateur in US Snowboarding Association events.

Because Elena is used to big competitions such as the X Games, she wants to treat the Olympics like any other event.

"It's a big contest because the whole world watches it, but it's really just another contest," she says.

Before she competes in big events, Elena arrives a few days early to practice, doing lots of stretching and relaxing with music.

Because she often flies directly from one snowboarding contest to the next, the high school junior doesn't attend school. Instead, she takes classes through independent study. While many of her snowboarding buddies can watch TV or play video games after a long day on the slopes, Elena has to hit the books.

Her busy competition schedule also leaves her little time to go home. Her parents live in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. But she moved to Mammoth, Calif., for training. She lives with a few other snowboarders in a condo there.

"I've been traveling on my own for so long that it's like second nature for me," she says. "When people at home find out that my parents let me go off for months at a time, they say, 'Are you crazy?' But then they say, 'You know, she hasn't gotten in trouble yet, so she must be doing something OK.' My mom comes out to some of the events. I miss her."

Even though she gets homesick sometimes, Elena enjoys traveling. In fact, traveling and meeting new people are her favorite parts of snowboarding. "I've seen places I never would have imagined going to," she says.

While she's in Turin, Elena wants to check out other sports, such as figure skating and hockey. As for her own event, she is simply focused on doing her best at the sport she loves.

"I just want to go there and take in the whole experience," she says. "I want to keep riding the best I can and hopefully do well and place well, but I want to have fun mostly."

Olympic whiz kids

Elena Hight isn't the only teenager who will compete in Turin. While athletes who are 19 and under are vying for medals in nearly every sport, teenage competitors pop up most often in figure skating, snowboarding, and short-track speedskating. Watch for these 13 teens in Turin:

Nineteen-year-old Hannah Teter, who first made the US snowboard team when she was 16, is a top contender this year. She won gold at both the 2004 Winter X Games and US Grand Prix championships, and a bronze at the 2005 World Championships.

Japan's Melo Imai, 18, won seven of 11 contests on her way to winning the overall World Cup snowboarding title in 2005.

On the men's side, 19-year-old Shaun White makes his Olympic debut after missing making the US team for the 2002 Games by three-tenths of a point. He has been a professional snowboarder and skateboarder since he was 13.

Teammate Mason Aguirre, 18, is the youngest member of the US men's snowboarding team and has been a professional snowboarder since he was 15.

In 2005, American figure skater Kimmie Meissner couldn't compete in the World Championships because she was 15 years old, and the rules said competitors had to be 16. This year she will make her Olympic debut. She is also the first American woman since Tonya Harding in 1991 to land a triple axel in competition.

Another skater, Italy's Carolina Kostner, turns 19 two days before the opening ceremonies, during which she will be Italy's flag bearer. When she won a bronze medal at the 2005 World Championships, she became only the second Italian skater ever to win a medal in ladies' singles.

Halie Kim, 17, won every event at the 2005 US National Championships in short-track speedskating to qualify for the World Championships. Until 2004, Halie, who is now a US citizen, lived with her parents in South Korea, a short-track hotbed.

South Korea is also the home to fellow teen sensations Sun-Yu Jin, 17, and Yun-Mi Kang, who turns 18 on Feb. 10. Ho-Suk Lee, 19, competes on the men's South Korean short-track team and has been the junior world champion for the past three years.

Nineteen-year-old American speedskater Margaret Crowley will compete in the 3,000 meters and in team-relay events. A former hockey player and figure skater, Ms. Crowley was third overall at the 2005 US National Championships.

Resi Stiegler,a 19-year-old skier, finished sixth in the slalom at the 2005 World Championships and will represent the US in the slalom, giant slalom, and combined skiing events. Skiing expertise runs in her family. Her father won three Olympic skiing medals for Austria: silver in 1960 and gold and bronze in 1964.

Anders Johnson, who's 16, made history this year by becoming the youngest ski jumper to be selected to be a member of the US Olympic team.

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