John F. Russell: Team trials

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The idea behind the 2006 U.S. Olympic Team Trials is a golden one.

The U.S. Ski Team takes the best athletes it has to offer, puts them on the same slope on the same day and offers the winners a trip to Italy.

The team decided to forget the World Cup points for a few hours and create the most level playing field available in a downhill sport. It allows young skiers such as Michael Morse, David Digravio and Landon Gardner to compete against freestyle skiing legends such as Travis Mayer, Jeremy Bloom and Nate Roberts.

For ski fans in Steamboat Springs, it's like the Super Bowl or a tour of the Magic Kingdom with all the Walt Disney characters.

Younger skiers view it as an opportunity to leapfrog the skiers in front of them en route to an Olympic appearance. The veterans should see it as a way to protect their position on the team and make sure they don't end up on the outside looking in when the team is named Jan. 25.

Skiing fans should see it as the closest the Olympics will ever get to Steamboat.

It's a formula that creates more pressure than an Internal Revenue Service audit and more excitement than a Britney Spears sighting at Wal-Mart.

It's a formula that proved it worked in 2002, when Mayer won the same event in Utah, and again on Friday, when Bloom, Hannah Kearney, Emily Cook and Ryan St. Onge thrilled thousands of spectators by topping their teammates.

Throughout the years, I've heard mixed reviews about pre-Olympic qualifiers. There is a chance that some young gun might have a great day and knock a much better skier down the ladder. That young gun then might fail to perform well in the Olympics.

I agree that qualifying events are a gamble, but just like the Olympics, they require an athlete to perform on a scheduled day.

If the best American skiers can't achieve that at a qualifying event, how will they get it done at the Olympics?

But more importantly, events such as the Olympic Team Trials put the sport of skiing into terms that most American sports fans can understand. It's like a playoff football game -- on snow.

I wish we had pre-Olympic qualifying events in every winter sport featured in Northern Italy in February.

Let members of the U.S. Ski Team have a shot at going to the Olympic Games regardless of where they stand in the world rankings. Make the top skiers defend their positions before the Olympic Games, and give the underdogs one last chance.

It's a formula the ski fans in Steamboat supported Friday by lining the Voo Doo mogul course and standing at the bottom of Howelsen Hill in freezing temperatures. The only way the trials could have been better is if the team awarded a ticket to Italy to every fan who showed up to watch Friday.

The U.S. Ski Team isn't going to send us to the Olympics, but the trials were about as close as we could get without boarding a plane.

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