- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2006

TURIN — The U.S. Olympic team might be even better than the 2002 model that surprised the world and created numerous sponsorship opportunities.

“We have an exceptional team,” U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Jim Scherr said yesterday. “We feel that this is, without question, the most accomplished team and perhaps the strongest team that we’ve placed on the field of play in an Olympic Winter Games.”

No doubt about it. The team has depth and skill, big names, big dreams and the ability to make them come true.

What it might not have by the end of the competition, which starts tomorrow, is the hardware to show for all of that. As noted by women’s long track skater Chris Witty, who will carry the flag tonight during the opening ceremony, “We won’t have the home country advantage, necessarily.”

Not necessarily, nor any other way. The Americans are back on foreign soil, far removed from their friendly confines.

Four years ago, taking advantage of a familiar time zone, familiar facilities and partisan crowds screaming, “USA! USA!,” the home team won a record 34 medals, including 10 gold, in Salt Lake City. It was a healthy increase from the 13 total medals (six gold) in Nagano, Japan, in 1998.

Not that Turin will be hostile. The place seems nice enough to visitors. Still, as Scherr observed, “The environment is much different.”

Predicting the number of gold or total medals is easy. Getting the number right is hard. There are too many variables, too many thousandths of too many seconds that mean the difference between standing exultant on a podium and throwing your socks into a bag with utter disgust.

Both the men’s and women’s Alpine ski teams are strong, and not afraid to mention it. “We really are the best in the world,” Kaylin Richardson said of the women’s squad.

But Bode Miller, who has generated more publicity and controversy than any American athlete by far and will compete in five events, might not live up to the hype.

Miller, a tad outspoken and somewhat visible in recent months, offered two comments yesterday after his first practice run for tomorrow’s downhill. They were, “How do I get out of here?” and “I never give interviews on my first day of training.”

In some circles, the silence probably was welcome. Lindsey Kildow, a women’s medal favorite, was asked about Miller’s inflammatory statements. She replied, “It’s his opinions and he’s entitled to them and, yeah, that’s pretty much all I’m gonna say.”

That’s OK, Lindsey, we get it.

Figure skater Sasha Cohen has an excellent chance to medal, better even than that of her more famous teammate, Michelle Kwan. But Russian Irina Slutskaya is a big favorite to win the gold in the Olympics’ most-watched event. U.S. skaters Tara Lipinski and Sarah Hughes won gold in 1998 and 2002, respectively.

Gold medals are more likely for the United States in other events, including snowboarding, bobsled and long and short track speed skating. A host of medal-winning skaters are joined here by a pair of Olympic newcomers, Chad Hedrick and Shani Davis, who might be better than the veterans.

Hedrick, a former in-line skating champion who was inspired to try a new sport after watching Derek Parra win a gold medal in 2002, is shooting for Eric Heiden’s superhuman record of five gold medals.

“Our U.S. speed skating team this year is unbelievable,” Hedrick said. “I think we should win 60 to 80 percent of the gold medals here.”

No pressure, there.

Richardson and Hedrick are not the only U.S. athletes brimming with confidence. Bobsledder Pavle Jovanovic, who missed the 2002 games because of a failed drug test, chirped, “I think you’re looking at the strongest, most powerful bobsled team in the world.”

But in the end, is it about the medals, or simply being here? For Witty, a 2002 gold medalist competing in her fifth Olympics and now the U.S. flag bearer, the answer is easy.

“It’s an amazing team to be part of, but to lead them into the opening ceremonies!,” she said, clearly moved. “I’m thrilled. I can’t imagine a bigger honor.”

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