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Picabo Street has high hopes for 2006 edition of U.S. Olympic alpine team

Picabo Street has high hopes for 2006 edition of U.S. Olympic alpine team{mosimage}ST. MORITZ, Switzerland – Picabo Street remembers the surprising weight, how heavy it felt to have the super G gold medal slipped around her neck by French ski great Jean-Claude Killy at the Nagano Olympics almost eight years ago.

The medal – black onyx etched with inlaid gold and hanging from a bulky blue and gold ribbon – is usually out of sight now, juggled from safe to safety deposit box between the occasional public appearance.

“I have my gold forever and no one can ever take it away from me,” Street said.

These days, the American ski team feels a different sort of weight: None of its alpine skiers has won a gold medal since Street in 1998.

The team was shut out at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. The American women had no medals at all, and Bode Miller won the men’s only medals with silvers in the giant slalom and combined. The last U.S. man to win Olympic gold in alpine skiing was Tommy Moe in the 1994 downhill at Lillehammer, Norway.

Street retired following the 2002 Olympics, where she finished 16th in the downhill. She’d like to see this American drought end at next month’s Torino Games.

“I think definitely this is one of the strongest teams I’ve ever seen,” she said. “There are medal opportunities in every discipline for sure. The women’s giant slalom is probably the weakest, but other than that it’s looking good. In some we’re looking at two to three opportunities per discipline. It’s pretty impressive.”

One of Street’s favorites is Daron Rahlves, the winner of three World Cup downhill races this season. He matched her U.S. record of nine career victories in the discipline with his triumph on the classic Lauberhorn course in Wengen last weekend.

“I have such high hopes for him. I want him to win an Olympic medal so badly,” Street told The Associated Press. “I love him. He’s such a good dude. He’s an all-around good athlete, nice guy, respectful and loyal yet real and cool.

“Bode is hard to predict,” she added. “I’m looking forward to the Bode Show like everyone else.”

Among the women, Street looks to friend and protege Lindsey Kildow, the winner of two downhills this season. Kildow placed fourth three times at the worlds last winter in Bormio, Italy, sobbing when she was beaten out for a podium spot in the downhill.

“Lindsey has a good opportunity to medal, and with her World Championships experience, she will be OK,” Street said.

Street also likes what she sees in Julia Mancuso.

“Miss Cool, Julia Mancuso, is just cool enough to come in and ride it,” she said. “She’s good over the flats, she’s got a great touch for snow, she’s experienced enough Olympics and World Championships to stay cool.”

Kildow knows she owes a lot to Street. “She put me under her wing when I came onto the team,” Kildow said. “I met her when I was 9 years old, and she gave me the motivation and kind of the goal to be in the Olympics and win an Olympic gold medal.”

Street has her favorites, with Kristina Koznick among them. Koznick has been competing independent of the U.S. team for years.

“I have such high hopes for her I almost can’t talk about it,” Street said. “She deserves it so much. I also seriously hope Kirsten Clark wins a medal and will be able to retire on that. And Erik Schlopy.”

U.S. coach Jim Tracy once coached Street and now trains the lower-tier Europe Cup team. “Can there be another Picabo Street? No,” Tracy told the AP, recalling that Street won her gold by 0.01 seconds. “But there is no doubt in my mind there will someone who will do as well or even better. Only it will be their story.

“A few of these girls can do something: Lindsey Kildow, Julia Mancuso, Kirsten Clark, and even Stacey Cook is coming out of her shell. A lot of these girls are even better than Picabo technically, even though she had a knack for speed and never let anything prevent her from going fast.”

Street loves speed, and that may be the reason she felt the women’s Olympic speed courses were a little disappointing.

Germany’s Hilde Gerg and other leading skiers signed a petition to move the women’s super G from San Sicario to a more demanding course.

“The terrain is not very aggressive and they supposedly built some terrain into it,” said Street, the first U.S. skier to win a World Cup downhill title when she roared to six victories in the 1995 season and clinched the title again the following year. “Hopefully, it will be more challenging.”

Street will be working in Torino for NBC’s “Today Show,” leaving 16-month old son Treyjan at home during the games. She also will be videotaping and blogging.

“I only hope I get to watch the women’s downhill,” Street said. “I think I’ll still be able to grasp the sensation even if I’m only living it vicariously.”

Street is now 34 and would love another crack at gold, but a few things would have to be worked out.

“If I were young and had a young body and had healthy knees and my back didn’t hurt,” she said. “Heartwise, I could be right in there.”

What do you think?

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