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Olympics: a maverick skier who could medal

Andrew Newell is turning cross-country skiing on its head, literally, and is one of the U.S. Team's best hopes for an olympic medal.

By / Staff writer / February 1, 2010

Stratton, Vt.

When Andrew Newell is suspended in midair above the luscious melting snow of a spring day in Utah, he doesn't have time to think about the fact that he could become the first US cross-country skier to medal at the Olympics in 34 years.

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He's too focused on landing a back flip on skinny skis.

But it is precisely Newell's unorthodox style and superior athleticism that may enable him to do what no American has done since 1976. Agile as a cat, and audacious enough to integrate expertise from sports as removed as rugby, he has been ranked among the top five sprint skiers in the world since 2006.

But Newell, part of a rising generation of US skiers that also includes potential medalists Kikkan Randall and Kris Freeman, is more than a star. He's a missionary of sorts – for his sport, and for the Olympic movement as a whole.

Because, let's face it: Securing the attention of America's TV audience with European sports practiced only in scattered pockets of the United States – mainly ones with populations as low as their temperatures – is no small feat in this day of "American Idol" and "Desperate Housewives."

As much as Americans love the Olympics, few have ever gotten near a luge track and most think of Nordic skiing as something for granola-crunching folks to do in Grandpa's backyard, as Newell puts it.

The International Olympic Committee gets that. So in an effort to spice up the Games, it has in recent years added a slew of new events to both the summer and winter programs – including snowboard cross and BMX racing. With head-to-head action, jumps, and a strong dose of gravity, they offer speed, drama, and the potential for spectacular crashes.

But so does cross-country skiing, argues Newell.

"In some ways, cross-country skiing is one of those original Olympic races that are extreme," he says.

As an athlete who bridges the central tension of the modern Olympics – tradition versus X-Games appeal – he's on a mission to prove that cross-country skiing has both.

Oh, yeah, and beat a few Scandinavians while he's at it.

Newell has the pedigree of a world-class skier – Vermonter, ski academy graduate, and protégé of a coaching dynasty that produced Bill Koch, the sole US medalist in Olympic cross-country skiing history.