A taste of Italy

Four 2006 Olympic spots on the line

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— Park Smalley remembers being chased from the woods for building freestyle ski jumps.

"I kept coming back saying, 'Please let us build jumps. It will be so cool,'" Smalley said.

No one has called Smalley prophetic, but he is credited with transforming freestyle skiing from forbidden backcountry sport to one of the most popular events of the Winter Olympics.

On Friday, America's top moguls skiers and aerialists will by vying for four Olympic spots during the 2006 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Steamboat Springs.

In a winner-take-all-format, the top man and woman in each discipline will punch a ticket to Turin, Italy.

"It's so special," said Smalley, who served as the first U.S. Freestyle Ski Team coach. "Anytime we bring these events to Steamboat, it's way cool. Freestyle has that one edge. You don't have to know anything about skiing to enjoy the performance."

It doesn't take an expert skier to realize that four lives are about to change, but it does take an expert skier to describe what the next 48 hours will be like for the talented field gathered in Steamboat.

"When I competed, we didn't have this Olympics Trials event," said 1992 Olympic bronze medalist Nelson Carmichael. "It's great that they have it. If you win it, you have an automatic spot. You do breathe a lot easier. With the U.S. team, with so many strong skiers, the person who wins this will be ahead."

Freestyle skiing made its Olympic debut in 1992 --he year Carmichael won bronze in the moguls. Aerials became an Olympic event in 1994. Since then, few countries have had as much World Cup and Olympic success as the United States.

It's possible those who come to watch Friday's moguls and aerials competitions will see a 2006 Olympic medalist up close. It's possible spectators will see more than one.

"The U.S. is so strong," Car--michael said.

This year's field includes three reigning Olympic medalists, including hometown favorite Travis Mayer, who won the 2002 U.S. Olympic Team Trials and went on to win the silver medal. Three reigning World champions and two defending World Cup championships also are in the field.

In addition to Mayer, Emiko Torito, Eliza Outtrim, Ryan St. Onge and Jana Lindsey also have Steamboat ties. Many other freestyle competitors train or live in Colorado.

Spectators are encouraged to cheer for everyone. After all, Friday's winners -- and the others who will be named to the U.S. Olympic Ski team Jan. 25 -- will represent the United States in February.

The moguls competition begins with the qualification runs at 9:30 a.m. on Friday at the Park Smalley Freestyle Complex on the Voo Doo run. The finals will begin at 11:10 a.m. In an interesting twist --iterally and figuratively --he aerials competition will be under the lights from 6 to 8 p.m. at Howelsen Hill.

Howelsen Hill is the longest continually operating ski area in Colorado. It also is the home mountain for most of Steamboat's 56 and counting Winter Olympians.

"You can't beat having a night event at Howelsen," Smalley said. "It's going to blow you away."

NBC Sports will be filming Friday's competition and will broadcast it at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.

It has taken nearly 30 years, but freestyle skiing has gone from the backcountry, to official Olympic status to made-for-TV event.

"We were always waiting for those days for people to be excited," Carmichael said. "In the last eight years more and more people have been exposed to it. That's what we've always wished for. We knew it could be there. That's what makes me excited now."

-- To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208 or e-mail mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com

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