Freestylers finding their place

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It's hard to believe that freestyle skiing has been an official Olympic sport since only 1992, when Nelson Carmichael and Donna Weinbrecht grabbed the hearts, and more important the attention, of a new breed of skier in Albertville.
Aerials joined the mix two years later in Lillehammer, Norway, and in a relatively short period of time, the sport of freestyle skiing forged its place in the Olympic tradition.
This year, skiers who were influenced by the pioneers of freestyle skiing will look to move the sport ahead under the lights along the 250-meter mogul course and world-class aerial hills that were built in Sauze d'Oulx, Italy, to host the 2006 Winter Olympic Games.
The Moguls
The mogul competition consists of a single qualifying run down a mogul-lined course with two air kickers. The top-16 skiers after the first run advance to the finals.
Each athlete's run is rated by a group of seven judges. Five evaluate the skier's technical performance with the high and low scores being tossed out. The total, makes up 50 percent of the athlete's score.
Two judges award a score for the airs that account for 25 percent of the athlete's score and the skier's speed is factored in for the final 25 percent of the score.
During the past two Olympic Games, the athletes who have pushed the envelope have been rewarded with top scores or dramatic changes.
In 1998, Jonny Moseley's mute-grab helped propel him to the gold medal. He didn't earn a spot on the podium in 2002 at Salt Lake City, but his dinner roll was a sign of things to come.
Moseley has faded into the background as younger skiers like Steamboat's Travis Mayer stepped into the spotlight.
In 2002, Mayer's tight, concise turns and acrobatic maneuvers led him to a second-place Olympic finish. Mayer's silver was the best Olympic finish for a Steamboat athlete.
He will return to the slopes in 2006 hoping that his D-spin 720 and retro upright 720 will win the hearts of the judges in Italy.
But if he hopes to bring home another medal he will need to top some of the top skiers in the country -- many of them his own teammates -- on Feb. 15. The women will compete Feb. 11.
Contenders for medals include World Champion mogul skier Jeremy Bloom. He topped the field at the U.S. Olympic Trails in Steamboat in December and looks to be on top of his game with a 720-Heli X and an off-axis 720.
This will be the first time in Olympic history that mogul skiers will be allowed to perform inverted aerial maneuvers off the kickers, so the events in Sauze d'Oulx are expected to be ground-breaking
Watch for Finland's Tap--io Luusua and Sami Must----onen, Australia's Dale Begg-Smith and Michael Robert--son, and Americans such as Bloom, Mayer and Toby Dawson to be looking for an edge.
Meanwhile, the American women will also be looking to build on the success of skiers such as Weinbrecht and 2002 silver medallist Shannon Bahrke.
Hannah Kearney, who won the U.S. Olympic Trials, Jillian Vogtli, Bahrke and Michelle Roark will all be hoping for gold.
But to earn it they will need to be better than Canadians Jennifer Heil, Kristi Richards and Stephanie St. Pierre. There's a good chance those skiers also will have to get past the defending Olympic champion Kari Traa of Norway in the finals. At 31, she's a little older than most in the field, but she still has the skill it takes to win.
The aerials
The aerial hills will be next to the mogul course, but the aerialists are not expected to take a back seat to the mogul skiers when it comes to pushing the limits.
In 2002, the Czech Republic's Ales Valenta landed the first quintuple-twisting triple backflip (five twists in three flips) off the kickers at the Salt Lake City Games.
Don't be surprised if the 2006 Olympic aerials champion lands a quint to take the gold medal in Italy.
The Olympic aerial format consists of a two-jump qualification Feb. 19 for the women and Feb. 20 for the men. The top-12 women will compete in the finals Feb. 22, and the top men will take a shot at the gold Feb. 23.
The athletes earn a score from a panel of seven judges. The score is based 20 percent on air, 50 percent on form and 30 percent on landing. Five judges rate the air and form, and two score the landing. The sum of the two jumps is used to calculate the final score.
The top men in the world include Steamboat's Ryan St. Onge, who won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Steamboat in December. There is also teammate Jeret "Speedy" Peterson, the reigning men's World Cup aerial's champion and 2002 Olympic silver medallist Joe Pack and 1998 gold medallist Eric Bergoust.
Winning the women's event will mean getting past several top skiers who call China home.
Those skiers include reigning world and World Cup champion Li Nina, and teammate Guo Xinxin who finished third in the 2005 World Cup standings.
Australia also will be strong at the games and if skiers Alisa Camplin, Lydia Ierodiaconou and Jacqui Cooper are healthy, they could all contend for a medal.
Emily Cook will carry the Americans' hopes at this year's games. She won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Steamboat to secure her spot at the Turin Olympics.

-- To reach John F. Russell call 871-4209
or e-mail jrussell@steamboatpilot.com

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