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America's new pastime: luge?

The US is enjoying unprecedented success in winter sports where it has long struggled, raising hopes for medals in the 2010 Olympics.

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In many sports, these recent successes are the product of a decade or more of steady development. For example, US Nordic combined began cracking the top 15 internationally in the 1990s and has gradually improved. This year, Bill Demong won five international events, including the prestigious King's Cup in Norway, which hasn't been won by an American since 1968.

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Younger athletes know that when they compete against Demong or 2009 World Champion Todd Lodwick in training, they "have a standard that's essentially a gold standard," says Head Coach Dave Jarrett.

Luge, too, has been steadily improving since landing a sponsor in 1985, winning its first two Olympic medals in 1998. Then Hamlin won Worlds this year, and teammates took bronze in the men's doubles.

"Having a World champion and a World Championship bronze medal certainly bodes well, but obviously we have a lot of work to do between now and [Vancouver]," says Gordy Sheer of USA Luge.

Promising talent + money = medals

As US winter sports have improved, they've gotten more money from the USOC, says Mr. Condron. Lugers test their equipment in a wind tunnel at the USOC Training Center in San Diego. US skiing, led by CEO Bill Marolt, has been helped by improved fundraising. He came back from a stint as athletic director at the University of Colorado in Boulder "with the college football rah-rah-rah and … really pumped it," says Hank McKee of Ski Racing magazine.

That has significantly increased support for cross-country skiers like Randall and teammate Kris Freeman, who missed a bronze at Worlds by less than two seconds in the 15 km race.

"We believe strongly we're on the right track that we know how to develop that talent," says Nordic Director John Farra. "We just need a bigger pool of that kind of talent. Those are the kind of things we're going to build over the next 10 years so that we have 10 Freemans."

But with some athletes, there simply will never be 10 of them. Like Vonn. "She is once-in-a-lifetime," says Mr. McKee of Ski Racing. "She works her tail off – that's the secret."

With 21 career wins, she's only six shy of Phil Mahre's American record; the international record is 86. And with at least six more years of prime competition form left, she is already the seventh most successful downhiller of all time. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the international record for career wins. Ingemar Stenmark won 86 World Cup victories; the women's record is 62.]