LAKE PLACID, New York ??вЂќ When the Nature Valley Freestyle Cup returns to the Lake Placid Olympic region Jan. 20-22, it will mark the final opportunity for many of the world’s top moguls and aerial skiers to qualify for their respective Olympic teams.
The Winter Games in Torino, Italy will begin just three weeks later. Those athletes who have qualified will be looking to perfect their tricks, while skiers on the outside will hope that the tour stop in this two-time Olympic village puts them on the road to Torino.
The U. S. Ski Team will be among those who will use these events to select competitors; the American team is set to be nominated Wednesday, Jan. 25.
The Whiteface / Lake Placid meet is one of the longest on the World Cup tour. The schedule includes moguls on the Wilderness trail at Whiteface Friday and Sunday, Jan. 20 and 22, beginning at 9:45 am daily. They will be wrapped around a spectacular night aerial event with fireworks and entertainment at 6:30 pm Saturday, Jan. 21, at the Kodak Sports Park located on the edge of Lake Placid.
When the Nature Valley contests end Sunday afternoon, U.S. coaches will huddle to start making final picks for the Olympic team that will compete Feb. 10-26 in Torino.
The U.S. moguls brigade is the deepest in the world – five of the top seven men are Americans, including World Cup king, Olympic Team Trials winner and potential NFL player Jeremy Bloom (Loveland, CO) who captured six straight tour events last winter. Bloom will be in the mix with reigning world champion Nate Roberts (Park City, UT), world champion Toby Dawson (Vail, CO), 2003 World Cup champ Travis Cabral (South Lake Tahoe, CA), 2002 Olympic moguls silver medalist Travis Mayer (Steamboat Springs, CO), Vermonter David Babic and Westchester County, N.Y. native Luke Westerlund. And that’s just the men’s team. With a max of four bumps runners per gender being able to qualify for the Olympic Team, the competition is tight.
This group will be tested at Whiteface by the likes of Tapio Luusua of Finland, the current World Cup leader. Dale Begg-Smith of Australia is second with Mayer in third spot and Bloom fourth.
Among the women, Vermont teen Hannah Kearney (Norwich), who also captured the Olympic Team Trials event, turns 20 on the final day of the Winter Games and is the defending world champion. She will be joined by 2002 Olympic moguls silver medalist Shannon Bahrke (Tahoe City, CA), 2003 World Championship silver medalist Michelle Roark (Denver, CO) and 2002 Olympian and upstate New Yorker Jillian Vogtli (Ellicotville), who won her first World Cup event last season and has taken a U.S. title each of the last two winters.
This bracket could be a North American showdown with Kearney in a tete-a-tete with Jennifer Heil of Canada, the current tour leader after winning the 2004 and 2005 World Cup overall crowns. As with the Americans, Heil, the champion here last winter, has a bump posse covering her back. Teammate Kristi Richards is fourth and Stephanie St. Pierre seventh.
Aerials, where the athletes are kicked up to 50 or 60 feet above the snow to perform twists and flips before landing, has its share of U.S. medal contenders, too. World Cup champ Jeret “Speedy” Peterson (Boise, ID) grabbed the season-opening event in Australia in September and Ryan St. Onge (Steamboat Springs, CO) won the next day. St. Onge also took the Olympic wild-card spot at the Olympic Team Trials on December 30. Olympic silver medalist Joe Pack (Park City, UT) and 1998 Olympic champion Eric Bergoust (Missoula, MT) also had podium performances in Australia.
Canada leads the World Cup standings at the moment with Kyle Nissen, who trained in Lake Placid for many years, atop the list. St. Onge is second and Dmitri Dashinski of Belarus third. Peterson is fifth overall.
The U.S. women’s scramble for Olympic slots will include Jana Lindsey (Black Hawk, SD), who has had a pair of World Cup top fives, and Kate Reed (Montrose, CO). Emily Cook (Belmont, MA) qualified for the 2006 Olympic Team when she won the U.S. Ski Team Olympic Trials Dec. 30; four years ago, when it was known as the U.S. Ski Team Gold Cup, Cook also won – but she had to surrender her spot on that 2002 Olympic Team when she injured both feet in a training crash.
But the question in this discipline is: can anyone defeat the Chinese? With gymnastics credentials converted to the snow, they currently stand 1-2 overall. Nannan Xu and Nina Li, a previous Lake Placid winner, are gradually distancing themselves from the field and will be difficult to beat in Lake Placid and Torino.
More than 140 athletes from 22 nations will train at both venues beginning Jan. 17.
For more details on the Nature Valley Freestyle Cup, please log on to www.whiteface.com and www.lakeplacidevents.net. For information on the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team, please log on to www.usskiteam.com.