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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.

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But he is a unique breed among the Nordic set, a chain-saw-wielding daredevil with a penchant for speed and big air. He sports tattoos and the skull-and-bones logo of his "x ski films" venture – a heavy-metal-meets-lycra-tights effort to prove that xc is more X than country.

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"What we really wanted to do with the movies was to show people what fast cross-country skiing looked like," says Newell, shown – along with his teammates – battling the world's best in front of wild European crowds.

He also included footage of himself doing 360s, back flips, and other tricks in a snowboard park in Park City, Utah, where he trains with the US Ski Team when not back home in Shaftsbury, Vt. Those tricks are purely recreational – there's no time for that in races. But the agility he's honed by defying gravity has given him a reputation in Europe akin to that of Bode Miller, the renegade US alpine skier whose audacious style enables him to trounce the world's best – when he doesn't crash.

"I'm infamous in Europe for being really good on my skis and being able to pass people really quickly – something that's come from having so much fun on skis when I was younger and [from] doing tricks," said Newell during an interview at his alma mater, Stratton Mountain School, just before heading over to Europe this winter. "But at the same time I'm kind of infamous for crashing out sometimes, too."

Going into eighth grade, Newell was "getting [his] butt kicked" at summer training camps, he says. So he decided to go to Stratton for the winter term. He was coached by Sverre Caldwell, whom – together with his brother, Tim, and 1976 medalist Bill Koch – Newell describes as "young stallions who would run for six hours without water and hike mountains carrying rocks."

"We all wanted to be like those legendary Vermont skiers," recalls Newell, whose autographed 2006 Olympic photo now hangs in the school's field house, inspiring a new crop of Stratton juniors. "So it was a good group of kids that were able to push each other really hard."

By Newell's senior year in high school, the Stratton team was better than any college team in the Northeast – in a sport where athletes generally peak in their late 20s.

But while Caldwell had talent, he also had problems. Just weeks before Junior Nationals one year, Newell injured himself doing a 360 during practice.

"As a coach, I was torn because if he doesn't hurt himself, [doing tricks] is actually good for him. But it's high-risk," says Caldwell, who said Newell had to find a balance between wisdom and the tough Vermonter image he and his teammates cultivated. "They liked to think they were badass rednecks."