Global gold diggers

February 9 1998

Global gold diggers

February 9 1998

Global gold diggers

The world’s brightest stars will light up the Games

Tara Lipinski/ Michelle Kwan

(women's figure skating)

Michelle Kwan was just 15 when she became the second-youngest world champion ever two years ago. But only a year later,

Kwan must have felt over the hill when she lost both her U.S. and world titles to

an even younger competitor, 14-year-old American teammate Tara Lipinski. A native of Sugar Land, Tex., the tiny Lipinski arrived with an athleticism and stunning array of jumps that the then-champion could not seem to match. At the time, Kwan and her coaches said the maturation of her body hampered her performance. But soon she rounded into top form, beating Lipinski to capture two events in the fall. While Lipinski, now 15, certainly has tremendous technical ability—she nailed seven triples in a recent final—Kwan seems better able to combine technical and artistic elements in a way that the judges prefer. (Lipinski, who rises as early as 3 a.m. for training and receives four hours of tutoring daily, complains that her scores have dropped even though she is skating as well or better than she did last year.)

Kwan suffered a temporary setback at the Skate Canada competition in Halifax in early November, when she seriously aggravated an old injury, forcing her to sit for three weeks with a cast on her foot. But the Torrance, Calif., teen, now all of 17, looked fresh when she performed at the U.S. championships in early January, skating a nearperfect program to recapture the national title. Lipinski, after a disastrous short skate, recovered to place second. The bronze went to 20-year-old Nicole Bobek—who, like Kwan and Lipinski, is a one-time

U.S. national champion—giving the Americans a triple threat at Nagano. “We definitely could place one-two-three,” boasted Bobek’s coach, Christa Fassi. “This really is the dream team for the Olympics.”

Magdalena Forsberg (biathlon)

i he may have i arrived late 'to her sport, but once Magdalena Forsberg found the biathlon, she barely paused before beating all comers. The Swede started as a member of the national cross-country squad, with whom she won bronze as part of the relay team at the 1987 world championships. But after years of otherwise lacklustre results,

Forsberg—who had always loved hunting with her dogs—

switched in 1993 to biathlon, which combines cross-country

skiing with target shooting, and began a steady climb to the top

of the sport. Married to Hendrik Forsberg, a member of the national cross-country team, she dominated the 1997 world championships, winning gold in the 15-km and the 10-km pursuits, and a bronze in the 7.5-km sprint. At Nagano, the 30-year-old’s main competition will come from Galina Kuouleva of Russia—a better skier than Forsberg, but not as good a shot—and the Swede remains a favorite in both the 15-km and 7.5-km races.

Bjorn Daehlie (cross-country)

Few Canadians would recognize him, but at Nagano his name may be spoken more often than that of any other athlete. In fact, Norway’s Bjorn Daehlie may be the greatest men’s cross-country racer of all time. Known to blow kisses and dance a playful jig after winning races,

Daehlie has already won five gold and three silver medals in the past two Olympic Games, and his matinee-idol good looks and success on the trails have made him a huge star in his home country. Coming into this season, the 30-year-old Norwegian had won 36 World Cup races—more than anyone else—as well as 15 medals at the world championships since 1991. At last year’s world championships in Trondheim, Norway, Daehlie scooped three golds—in the 10-km classic, the 15-km freestyle pursuit and the men’s relay. He added a silver in the 30-km freestyle and bronze in the 50-km classic. So far this season, Daehlie leads in World Cup point standings—well ahead of countryman Thomas Alsgaard in second. Norwegian skiers hold four of the top seven spots in world competition and, barring disaster, seem certain to win the men’s Olympic relay.

Karine Ruby (women's snowboarding)

Originally from Chamonix, a small town in the Alps, Karine Ruby watched French athletes in nearby Albertville win medals in what in 1992 was a new Olympic sport, freestyle skiing. Six years later and half a world away, she hopes to reproduce that feat in Nagano, in another Olympic novelty: snowboarding. And her chances are good. In 1993, at 16, Ruby won her first races ever on the World Cup snowboarding circuit and, two seasons later, held World Cup titles in slalom and giant slalom, becoming the women’s overall champion. Earlier this year, on her way to five straight giant slalom victories, she celebrated her 25th World Cup triumph. “My advantage is that I know no fear,” the 21-year-old says. Beyond her aggressive approach, Ruby’s speed and control on the slopes are unrivalled: she is virtually unbeaten in giant slalom this year. At the Games, her main competition is expected to come from Sondra Van Ert of the United States.

Hermann Maier (men's skiing)

In the past 20 years, few skiers have dominated rivals in so many different disciplines—and no one has done it more quickly than Austria’s Hermann Maier. Three years ago, Maier was working as a bricklayer. Now, he is a favored to win Olympic gold. In World Cup competition this season, Maier’s strength and technical skill have earned him victories in the downhill, giant slalom and super-G races; only a slalom win has eluded the 25-year-old. Maier’s achievement is all the more remarkable because it comes in only his second World Cup season: he abandoned skiing in 1992 because of knee problems. He returned to the sport in 1996, and seems certain to win the overall World Cup title, where a skier’s points are combined in each of the four events.

High-flying Harada: the World Cup leader with an ever-present grin

But Maier is not the only Austrian skier to grab headlines. Teamg mate Stefan Eberharter has been chasing him all season—the pair | rank one-two in the standings. In fact, with skiers like Maier, Eber§ harter, Andreas Schifferer and Christian Mayer, one of the biggest § problems facing the Austrians is that they can enter only four skiers ¡i in each Olympic race. The Austrian men’s team has been so dominant g this year that at an event in Borimo, Italy, their skiers took six of the | top eight spots. No wonder some observers are joking that World Cup races look more like Austrian national championships. After Nagano, they may be saying the same about the Olympics.

Masahiko Harada (ski-jumping)

Japan’s Masahiko Harada is known for his ever-present grin and his infectious enthusiasm, but mention the Lillehammer Olympics to the former world champion and the smile quickly disappears. Harada lost the Olympic gold for Japan in the team competition four years ago when on his final jump he landed four metres short of the distance required to overtake the Germans. Fortunately, he has enjoyed better luck since then. Last year, Harada won four World Cup events, including the K-120 world title. He has carried that momentum into the current season, and he leads the world jumping points standings. His teammates are also having excellent seasons, and H combined, they top the Nation’s Cup rankings, where countryman í Kazuyoshi Funaki is closing in on Harada. With backing like that—

§ and spurred on by vocal Japanese support at the new venue at Haku> ba, 40 km west of Nagano City—27-year-old Harada could find himself not only capturing the individual title but also making up for his 1994 performance and clinching gold for Japan.

Nikki Stone (freestyle aerial skiing)

She has done some high-flying in her time, and American Nikki Stone hopes that experience will provide the perfect point of departure towards a gold medal in the women’s freestyle aerials competition. In 1995— after a disappointing 13th-place finish at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics—Stone became the world champion and also held the overall points crown. She looked ready to repeat the following year, but a serious back injury forced her to miss the final four events of the World Cup season, leaving her fourth overall.

Stone, who hopes to parlay her wholesome looks and enthusiasm into a film and TV career after she retires, won her first World Cup back in 1992. But she has had some bitter disappointments in her otherwise-stellar career—not only the Iillehammer disaster but a 10th place at the 1997 worlds. “I think it was a good thing I got my butt kicked because it got me fired up for this season,” says the native of Westborough, Mass., who stands first overall in World Cup competition, leading Veronica Brenner of Sharon, Ont. “That happened when I didn’t do well at the Olympics and I came back the nextyear and won the world title.” At Nagano, Stone—who will turn 27 just before the Games—will once again be out to prove her resiliency, and turn failure into Olympic gold.

Norbert Huber (singles luge)

How did Norbert Huber become one of the world’s best lugers? Perhaps it just runs in the Italian’s family. In Lillehammer four years ago, he won silver in the two-man luge competition, but any disappointment was tempered by his younger brother Wilfried taking the gold. At the same Games, a third brother, Guenther, won bronze in the two-man bobsleigh event, while another, Arnold, placed fourth in the singles luge. (The Huber sibling rivalry is partly a product of the physics of luge: partners should not be the same size, meaning the brothers were unable to compete together.) After Lillehammer, when his partner of 10 years retired, Norbert Huber decided to go it alone, and this year the 33-year-old sits second in overall singles standings behind Italian teammate Armin Zoeggeler. But Nagano will be something of a reunion for the Huber sliding dynasty. Guenther, who is second in the two-man bobsleigh rankings, will be there, and so will Wilfried, who like Norbert has switched to singles luge and sits only a few places behind in world rankings.

Lee-Kyung Chun (short-track speed skating)

South Korean Lee-Kyung Chun has dominated her sport like few other athletes. She still holds world records in three of the four individual events and is the reigning overall world champion. She is also a two-time Olympic champion, and is ranked first in the world over the 1,500-m and the 3,000-m distances. Too bad the Olympics will not highlight the full extent of Chun’s talent: women only race in the 500 m, 1,000 m and the 3,000-m relay.

But spectators will still see plenty of the speedy veteran. Chun leads a strong South M Korean team, which | includes world dou| ble-silver medallist §

Hae-Kyung Won. §

Widely expected to g win the 3,000-m relay,

Chun and the South Koreans will be challenged by Isabelle Charest and the Canadians, as well as by a powerful Chinese team. In individual competition, Chun—going into what will likely be her last Olympics—has not been in top form recently in the 1,000-m event. But she is still the defending Olympic champion and the world record holder in the 1,000, and she has at least an outside shot in the 500 m.

ChriS Witty (long-track speed skating)

When U.S. speed skater Chris Witty went to get a tattoo recently, she knew immediately what she wanted: a Notre Dame Fightin’ Irishman. Although she is not a Notre Dame fan—the 22-year-old attended Carroll College in her native Wisconsin—she saw a lot of herself in the tough little fighter who is forever moving forward. It is a style that § has quickly made her e one of the fastest sprint1 ers on the skating g oval—and the favorite in I the 1,000-m event in o Nagano. At the 1994 Olympics, Witty went unnoticed, placing 23rd. But the following year, she captured the World Cup title in the 1,000, as well as gold in the world sprint championship. A confirmed member of the MTV generation who recently had her navel pierced, Witty is an allaround athlete—she was an alternate on the U.S. Olympic cycling team in Atlanta. In skating, she is the current world record holder z in the 1,000 m and, on any given day, is capable of winning races § from the 500to 1,500-m distances. Canada’s Catriona LeMay Doan, z the world record holder in the 500 m, will provide stiff competition o in both the 500and 1,000-m events.

Todd Eldredge (men's figure skating)

T T Tarming up for the finals of the Skate America competition last l/l/ October, Todd Eldredge fell heavily to the ice and dislocated f T his shoulder. He skated anyway—and won. Going into Nagano as U.S. champion, he will have to demonstrate that sort of determination again—and perhaps more—if he hopes to capture gold.

Eldredge took his first U.S. title at age 19 in 1990, and seemed destined to duplicate the 1988 Olympic gold-medal achievement of countryman Brian Boitano. But things quickly began to unravel for the Chatham, Mass., native. He was a disappointing 10th at the 1992 Olympics and failed to even qualify for the lillehammer Games. But now—after regaining his national championship in 1995 and finishing

second to Canadian Elvis Stojko at the worlds last year—some observers are again suggesting he could win Olympic gold. “It’s the desire to be on the podium that has kept me fired up for so long,” says the quiet 26-year-old. Since Skate America, Eldredge has recovered from his injury, and he captured his fifth national title in early January. Still, it would help Eldredge’s Olympic hopes if he could bolster his jumps: he is one of the few serious challengers for gold who has yet to complete a quadruple toe loop in competition. Without that—and against a tough international field led by Stojko—the American’s desire may not be enough.

Ids POStlTia (long-track speed skating)

When Norway’s Johan-Olaf Koss retired from long-track speed skating after the Lillehammer Olympics, the sport lost one of its most exciting performers. In Nagano, Dutch skater Ids Postma may come forward to fill Koss’s skates. In 1994, Postma announced his transition from the junior ranks to the men’s circuit by placing second overall at the world championships in Sweden. After joining a very strong Dutch men’s team—which still includes Gianni Romme, the world record holder in the 5,000 m—Postma’s career was derailed in 1995 when he was stricken by the debilitating Epstein-Barr syndrome. But he made a successful comeback in 1996 and finished second overall in the world standings. By 1997, the

quiet but intense skater became a favorite to win at the Olympics after shattering the 1,500-m world record formerly held by Neal Marshall of Coquitlam, B.C.

At Nagano, 23-year-old Postma—who lives on a farm where he raises cattle—will skate in only the 1,000and 1,500-m events. (Even though he won the world championship in the 5,000 m in 1996, he will not compete in that race because of a poor showing in the Dutch qualifiers.) g Marshall, 28, and 21-yearold Jeremy Wotherspoon 3 of Red Deer, Alta., will face I off against the Dutch I skater in both the 1,000 m i and the 1,500 m.

Though unknown to many Canadians, they will soon become household names