- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 7, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY From fluttering flags to clanging cowbells, Casey Puckett is used to raucous home crowds.

Problem is, he's always on the road.

"We spend a lot of time racing in Europe, and we never see the kind of fervor the Austrians have about alpine ski racing," said Puckett, a member of the U.S. Olympic Ski Team. "So I can't wait to be a part of the whole energy of being in Salt Lake and being in the United States."

He's not alone. With the Winter Olympics on American soil for the first time in more than two decades, the skiers and skaters of Team USA are shooting for a record medal tally and counting on a home snow and ice advantage to help them along.

"At home, we have as good a shot as we're going to get," said U.S. bobsledder and Chantilly resident Mike Kohn.

For the United States, the target is 20 medals, seven more than the previous American high of 13 at the 1994 Lillehammer and 1998 Nagano Games.

It's a major jump, concedes Fairfax figure skater Michael Weiss, but not an impossible one.

"If you look at recent Olympics, you'll see that the host country all of a sudden has a huge medal count," Weiss said. "Even in Japan [in 1998], they didn't have a hugely successful team prior to the Games. So I think the American team will do pretty well here."

History seconds that notion. Since 1932, the Winter Olympic home team has won an average of four more medals than during the previous Games, with France (plus seven in 1994) and Switzerland (plus seven in 1948) enjoying the greatest gains.

At the 1932 Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., the United States accumulated 12 medals, six more than its previous best. Forty-eight years later, Team USA enjoyed a two-medal jump at Lake Placid one of those coming from the "Miracle on Ice" hockey squad, perhaps the least likely champions in Olympic history.

"It's a totally different experience having the Games here in the U.S.," said moguls skier Ann Battelle, an Olympic veteran. "I've only been here one day, and I can already tell."

The reason? Start with the Olympic venues. A reported 38 members of Team USA moved to Utah to train for the Games, and many others have practiced and competed extensively at the tracks and rinks in and around Salt Lake City.

As a result, American athletes are familiar with the quirks of courses like the bobsled run at Utah Olympic Park a potential advantage in events where the margin of victory is often measured in hundreds of a second.

"Every track is different, and we've been on this track for six years," said Kohn, whose four-man bobsled team will be one of two looking to snap a 46-year U.S. medal drought in the sport. "The Europeans have been on it three times, and only because we had to let them. We've nailed down driving the hard part of the track."

Likewise, Weiss feels right at home at Delta Center, having won his first national title there in 1999.

"I know the locker room backstage, the waiting area, the warmup area, where to get on and off the ice, the hallways, where the judges are," he said.

"I've been going through this competition in my head over and over for the last two months, so hopefully when I go out there, it'll be just another run-through."

For others, the advantage comes down to, well, the comforts of home a familiar language, minimal time zone shifts, recognizable cuisine (the last, of course, being the most important).

"All you have to worry about is you and your skates and your performance," said U.S. speedskater Annie Driscoll. "If you were in a different country, there might be culture shock, a completely different track, food and just so many other factors. But here, it's like your hometown."

Then there's the crowd factor. With the exceptions of figure skating and ice hockey, most U.S. winter athletes spend much of their time competing abroad, where polite applause is as good as it gets.

In Salt Lake, however, they'll be greeted by family, friends and patriotic throngs, all cheering for anyone sporting red, white and blue and never mind that most Americans are more familiar with actor Alan Alda than U.S. ski jumper Alan Alborn.

"I'm kind of immobile right now, but I'll definitely be out there in the stands during the Olympics," said U.S. freestyle aerialist Emily Cook, who is out of the Games because of a foot injury. "I can't wait to watch the events and cheer on my teammates."

Puckett, of course, wouldn't have it any other way.

"There's just an extraordinary amount of patriotism in general right now, and it's just magnified during these two weeks," he said. "We've had our sights set on this for so long, and put so much focus into these Games. I see really good things happening."

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