US Nordic skiers head for Olympics with more hopes than usual

Coaches and athletes, hoping to defuse any unrealistic expectations, downplay medal possibilities for American Nordic skiers at the upcoming Winter Olympics, but all agree the United States is sending its finest Nordic teams in history to Sarajevo.

It won't be just Bill Koch and a lot of wishing.

Nordic competition doesn't get much attention in the United States, but the Americans have been quietly building some strong teams and gaining plenty of respect from their European competition.

''We're still not in the same league with the Norwegians and the Soviet Union in terms of depth and overall numbers,'' said Jim Page, Nordic program director for the US Ski Team, ''but we've got a stable program in each sport and we're no longer token opposition for anyone. They know we're there.''

As for the Olympics, he added, ''We've sent bigger teams in the past but some athletes didn't get to compete, so it was a waste of money on one hand and it hurt morale on the other.

''This winter, everyone we're sending to Sarajevo is expected to compete. We're sending them to Europe early so they can get over jet lag and have some solid training before the games begin.''

Trials were conducted at this 1980 Olympic site for cross-country, ski jumping, Nordic combined, and biathlon. After the trials, all four teams flew to Europe for competition and/or training leading up to the opening of the Games on Feb. 7.

Koch, a 1976 Olympic silver medalist in the 30-kilometer race and the 1982 World Cup champion, remains the preeminent US Nordic competitor, but there are at least a couple of others who must be considered possible medal contenders.

Kerry Lynch is tied for the World Cup lead in Nordic combined, which mixes 70 -meter jumping one day and 15-km skiing the next, while Jeff Hastings won a 90 -meter World Cup jumping competition here in December and is a threat in any meet.

''We're not promising any medals but I'd be lying if I said we didn't have pretty high hopes,'' Page said. ''Our kids have shown they can compete with the best.''

A look at each Nordic sport (all except cross-country are men-only competitions):

Men's cross-country: Koch seems to be bouncing back from physical setbacks that sidelined him during the holidays. He had a solid week of training before rejoining the team in Davos, Switzerland, and has geared his intensive workouts to peak in Sarajevo. ''I'm not thinking about medals, just having some good races,'' he said. But as US coach Mike Gallagher said, ''We all know what a good race from Kochie can mean.''

Prenamed to the Olympic squad with Koch was Jim Galanes, a lanky, rawboned racer who had two top-10 finishes in World Cup races before Christmas. Koch, Galanes, Dan Simoneau, and four-time Olympian Tim Caldwell will form the 4 X 10 -km relay team which has an outside shot at a bronze medal; the Soviets and Norway probably will be 1-2, with the US possibly wrestling with Sweden and Finland for the third spot.

As Simoneau notes, ''The Olympics are the ultimate challenge. It's one race, one day - and do it.''

Women's cross-country: No great expectations, just a feeling that Sue Long, who switched from Alpine racing just three years ago, or Judy Rabinowitz could slip into the top 20. ''We have to be realistic, and a top-20 finish for us would be terrific,'' said coach Ruff Patterson.

Nordic Combined: Lynch is the premier runner in the combined sport and if he can put together two good jumps, he must be considered a golden contender. He underwent surgery on his right knee last spring, but seems to have left any such problems behind in winning two of the first three X-C events in combined meets. Pat Ahern is a fine runner whose jumping has given him trouble since a training crash two years ago at the world championships, but he showed his readiness last weekend by beating out Lynch in the trials.

''You try to forget the medals and concentrate on doing your best,'' said Lynch looking ahead to the big test. ''There's no way to control what anyone else does, so we've got to focus on our own performance . . . and give it our best shot.''

Ski jumping: Hastings is the lone medal threat, but Mike Holland, who set a US distance record of 177 meters last March, is definite top-10 material, and a couple of others might nudge their way into the top 15. Coach Greg Windsperger said Hastings ''has all the talent in the world and if he can get some good conditions, he'll be right in there with the best. The win at Lake Placid was no fluke.''

And Hastings doesn't think competing an ocean away will hurt either.

''Being away from the American crowds should be a help,'' he said. ''It's great to have them cheering for you, but it's also a kind of reverse pressure because you don't want to disappoint your parents, your friends, and anyone else.''

Biathlon: This sport, which combines skiing with target shooting, is almost unknown in the United States. Josh Thompson, a promising but youthful (21) biathlete, won three of the four qualifying events but may be four years away from any serious challenge for a top-10 finish.

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