Time to play Winter Games | SierraSun.com

Time to play Winter Games

AP Photo/Kevin FrayerThe sun sets over the village of Sestriere, Italy on Wednesday.

Where would the United State ski and snowboard teams be this Winter Olympics without a strong contingent of athletes from the Lake Tahoe area?

Without question, in the history of the Winter Games, the area is sending its largest and most talented group of athletes to Torino, Italy.

As a result, the silver medal won by Tahoe City freestyle skier Shannon Bahrke at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City should easily be surpassed.

Just consider the talent in Alpine skiing:

On the men’s side, the U.S. team includes Truckee’s Daron Rahlves, fourth in the World Cup overall standings; and Tahoe City’s Marco Sullivan, a fearless downhiller who led the Americans by finishing ninth in the event at the last Olympics.

Julia Mancuso, meanwhile, gives Lake Tahoe the best hope in women’s Alpine skiing. The rising star from Olympic Valley notched her first World Cup podium in super-G on Jan. 27 and added a second a day later ” a sign that she’s at her best going into Torino.

First-time Olympian Stacey Cook of Truckee is the fourth and final Lake Tahoe competitor, earning her way to Italy with a pair of top-10 downhill finishes earlier in the season at Lake Louise, Alberta.

Freestyle moguls skiing has been stellar in the region the past decade, with Squaw Valley’s Jonny Moseley sparking interest in the sport by winning the 1998 gold medal in Nagano, Japan.

Four Lake Tahoe skiers, including Moseley, have won World Cup events since the ’98 Games (Bahrke, Travis Cabral and Travis Ramos) and two of them will have a chance to medal in Torino.

South Lake Tahoe’s Cabral has collected four World Cup wins and the 2003 World Cup season title since the last Olympics and is a threat to podium on a deep American men’s team.

Bahrke has fought her way back from a series of injuries and is just beginning to produce the type of results that made her one of the world’s best several years ago.

The Winter X Games helped the International Olympic Committee realize that snowboarding is the sport of choice among young adults. With boardercross joining halfpipe and parallel giant slalom at the Torino Games, riders can take comfort in knowing that the Winter X Games aren’t the biggest showcase for their talents anymore.

The progressive sport has seen Lake Tahoe be the home of some of the world’s top riders, including teenage halfpipe star Elena Hight of Zephyr Cove.

Next to Gretchen Bleilier, the 16-year-old Hight was the U.S.’s most consistent rider in the five-event Chevrolet Grand Prix of Snowboarding during the 2005-06 season.

Although she didn’t qualify for the 2006 Winter X Games superpipe finals in Aspen, Colo., Hight had five podium finishes in five U.S. Grand Prix events and remains a serious threat to medal in her first Olympics.

Hannah Teter, originally from Belmont, Vt., now calls Meyers home. While she and Hight have continually switched runner-up roles to Bleilier this season, both could easily podium because the difference between the country’s top three riders is minimal.

Hight believes that, like the men’s team in Salt Lake City in 2002, the Americans have the talent to sweep the podium in Torino.

“I have full confidence that everyone who is going will represent really well,” Hight said. “Everyone who is going is a really good representation of U.S. snowboarders and snowboarders anywhere. I think everyone has full potential to sweep (all the medals). The Olympics is the biggest event in the world, so I’m really looking forward to going there and having a lot of fun.”

In men’s halfpipe, Andy Finch of Truckee made a late push to make the Olympics with a clutch result at the final Grand Prix event in Mountain Creek, N.J.

Although a minor foot injury kept him out of competing at the Winter X Games, he is expected to be healthy for Italy and has the talent to medal for a loaded U.S. team led by Shaun White, who has yet to lose six major halfpipe competitions this season.

However, the highest expectations for any Lake Tahoe rider are with Olympic Valley’s Nate Holland, who has established himself this season as one of the best boardercross riders in the world.

Holland won boardercross gold at the Winter X Games and has the best World Cup finishes of any American rider. If he didn’t medal, it would be a major shock.

Joining Holland on the team is Sierraville’s Jayson Hale, who replaced South Lake Tahoe’s Shaun Palmer after an Achilles tendon injury derailed Palmer’s chances for Olympic glory. The 20-year-old Hale won a bronze medal in boardercross less than three weeks ago at the X Games and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the up-and-coming rider grab a podium in Torino.

However, look out for Rahlves, who hasn’t won a medal in two previous Winter Olympics. His best result is seventh in super-G in Nagano.

Rahlves, though, has become the U.S.’s most consistent skier during the 2005-06 World Cup season after Bode Miller became the first American in two decades to win the World Cup overall title last year.

Rahlves has a pleasant history at Sestriere, having won a World Cup downhill there in 2004.

“He likes the hill,” said U.S. Olympic Alpine team doctor Terry Orr of South Lake Tahoe. “It’s on a hill he’s done well on.”

The timing for Rahlves stepping onto an Olympic podium couldn’t be better. The 32-year-old Rahlves has pocketed three World Cup downhill wins this season and has been in top form in the most prestigious events. He won the famed Lauberhorn in Wengen, Switzerland, in the middle of January and then was third at Kitzbuehel a week later.

If Rahlves doesn’t produce any medals, the U.S.’s other serious threats include Miller, Mancuso, Lindsey Kildow and Ted Ligety.

Miller won a pair of silver medals at the last Olympics, but he has been slowed by a tendency to not finish races ” not to mention some controversial ideas on drug testing and admitting to competing while intoxicated.

Two World Cup wins this season make the 21-year-old Kildow the bonafide contender in the women’s Alpine speed events. She also podiumed right before the Games by placing third in super-G at Cortina.

Mancuso has shown a rare well-rounded ability in all of the disciplines that eventually could make her a future World Cup overall champion. Her runner-up super-G finish at Cortina is her best performance to date, but her performance at the 2005 World Championships is the highlight of her career. She was third in both the super-G and GS.

Ligety, the 2005 national champion in slalom, has become a serious threat to medal in his favorite discipline. Through six races Ligety was second to Italian star Giorgio Rocca in the overall slalom standings.

If Cabral and Bahrke don’t medal in moguls skiing, there is an excellent chance that one of their American teammates will. For the first time in team history, Americans filled out the four men’s and women’s spots by meeting Olympic criteria.

Both teams weren’t decided until the final run of the final pre-Olympic contest at Lake Placid, N.Y. The men’s team is so deep that 2005 world champion Nate Roberts didn’t make the cut.

“That is how tough it is for us,” Cabral said. “We’re all the best in the world. It’s hard to pick four people.”

Toby Dawson appears to be the hottest going into the Games, but Jeremy Bloom has a knack for rising to the top in the big events and is the defending World Cup champion.

Like Bahrke, teammates Michelle Roark, Hannah Kearney and Jillian Vogtli are all capable of a medal performance in Italy.

So in the next few weeks, Lake Tahoe athletes will try to prove that they are the strongest collection of athletes the area has ever sent to the Games.

Sun News Service sportswriter Jeremy Evans contributed to this story.

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