tampabay.com

10 U.S. athletes to watch

By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published February 10, 2006


JEREMY BLOOM, 23, freestyle skiing

Events: moguls

Jeremy Bloom's most difficult move this month may not take place on the freestyle ski slopes of Turin.

It will come right after he finishes the moguls competition, then promptly boards a plane bound for Indianapolis to take part in the NFL combine Feb. 22-28. His two-fold goal: take home an Olympic gold medal and find a home in pro football.

Bloom has proven he can excel at both pursuits. As a skier, his resume is impressive: 2005 World Cup overall champion with a record-tying six consecutive World Cup triumphs; 2003 world champion in dual moguls; youngest man to win the overall World Cup title in 2002 at 19; member of the 2002 Olympic team.

But the man with the best shot at a U.S. freestyle gold has earned plenty of attention for his play on the football field in two seasons at the University of Colorado.

"There's nothing like the excitement of playing college football," he said. "Looking back, I just had the two most incredible experiences I'll ever have. Playing Division I football with the camaraderie and the rivalry. ... It's just a dream come true."

It was like a dream indeed. As a freshman in 2002, Bloom returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown on his first attempt, and his 94-yard touchdown as a wide receiver against Kansas State was the longest catch in school history. For his efforts, Bloom was named first-team freshman All-American and third-team All-American as a punt returner.

The NCAA, however, put an end to his playing days at CU in 2004, ruling that he was permanently ineligible because he had accepted skiing endorsements. Bloom sued the NCAA but lost.

There was an upside to the episode, though. Bloom had missed five World Cup competitions because of football. When he was forced to focus only on skiing, he reached new heights, winning four World Cup events in 2004 and enjoying his amazing '05.

Bloom is a hot commodity off the slopes these days. He has started a career as a model (appearing in GQ and on the cover of the 2004 Abercrombie & Fitch Christmas catalog), and is showcased in the 2005 extreme-skiing movie Higher Ground .

Now, his dream is to find higher ground in Turin, then gain ground on the NFL gridiron.

CHAD HEDRICK, 28, long-track speed skating

Events: 1,000 meters, 1,500, 5,000, 10,000, team pursuit.

Chad Hedrick's Olympic speed-skating career began four Februarys ago at a blackjack table in Vegas.

An acclaimed world champion inline skater, Hedrick was living the good life, doing a little gambling and watching the Salt Lake City Games on a TV overhead. His old inline buddy, Derek Parra, had just won the gold medal in the 1,500 meters.

At that moment, it all clicked for Hedrick: "I decided this was my destiny," he said.

So he took up long-track speed skating and within 14 months was on top of the world again.

Hedrick won the World All-Around Championship in Norway in 2004, becoming only the third American man in modern times to earn the honor, joining Eric Heiden and Eric Flaim. He was the first non-Dutch athlete to win the championship in 10 years. Now the affable Houston native has a chance to join Heiden as the only skater to earn five gold medals in an Olympics, a feat Heiden achieved in 1980.

Of course, the skating world has been taking notice in a big way already. Hedrick was named U.S. Speedskating's 2003-04 athlete of the year and was U.S. champion in 2004 in the 10,000. Last year, Hedrick finished second to Shani Davis in the World All-Around Championships but defended his 5,000 title.

Hedrick is known for his "double-push" skating technique, the inline style he developed that is similar to slalom skiing. In essence, he pushes with both feet at the same time to create extra power. It helped him win 50 world inline championships. So did literally growing up on roller skates from 18 months on, the result of his parents owning a chain of rinks in Texas.

Hedrick was nicknamed "The Exception" by Parra, his skating roommate, for ignoring the standard rules for training and for enjoying the night life. But the results have been nothing short of exceptional.

APOLO OHNO, 23, short-track speed skating

Events: 500 meters, 1,000, 1,500, relay.

If you watched the Winter Olympics last time around, chances are good you remember Apolo Ohno.

He was the guy with the cool soul patch on his chin, the rock-star popularity and the distinctive name. In the NASCAR-like sport of short-track speed skating, often disrupted by crashes and pileups on the crowded 111-meter oval, "Oh, no" has a fitting ring.

In fact, it was a little shoving that helped Ohno win gold in Salt Lake City, triggering a massive controversy. The Seattle native had finished second in the 1,500 but was declared the winner when judges ruled that South Korea's Kim Dong-Sung had illegally bumped Ohno during the race.

The ruling caused an uproar among South Korean fans, even triggering a wave of death threats directed at Ohno. But he emerged unscathed, adding a silver medal in the 1,000, and single-handedly helped raise the profile of speed skating.

Now, he's back for more. He will arrive at Turin as a three-time World Cup overall champion and seven-time U.S. short-track overall champion.

Given his choice, Ohno would prefer a lower profile. "It's always easier being an underdog," he said. "You have no expectations. There's no target on your back."

Those days are over for Ohno, however. After Salt Lake City, he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated, made the rounds of post-Oscar parties and rang the bell to open a round of trading at the New York Stock Exchange. But he has rededicated himself to rigorous training in hopes of winning more Olympic gold.

One sign of Ohno's commitment is his decision to live and train away from the limelight. He is a full-time resident of the U.S. Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs, where he can maintain his focus and draw motivation from other Olympians.

"It's very pretty here," he said. "The mountains. The snow. It's a nice place to be. I really don't do much. My social life is cut to a minimum. I don't really go out. I don't drink. Go to sleep pretty early every single night. My lifestyle is pretty boring."

But the Salt Lake star should be rockin' soon.

SASHA COHEN, 21, figure skating

In a way, Sasha Cohen's arrival at the cusp of figure skating greatness began with the journey of her mother.

Galina was 16 when she and her family fled the Soviet Union to escape oppression of Jewish citizens in Ukraine. They settled in San Diego to live near an uncle and begin anew in America.

"My mom and her parents had to leave because her brother had left a couple of years before and the government was really upset," she said. "And they took away both my grandparents' jobs so they couldn't make a living. And they had to sell many things - they weren't allowed to take more than $500 out of the country to start a whole new life."

Cohen was born Alexandra Pauline, but nicknamed Sasha. Her first sport was gymnastics, but by 10, she had developed a love for figure skating. She mastered most of her double jumps by 11 and was on her way. But for Cohen the trip has had its share of frustration to go with the accolades.

The story has been told and retold in recent weeks. Cohen has been constantly overshadowed by superstar Michelle Kwan. While Kwan was winning eight consecutive U.S. titles, Cohen was finishing second in 2002, 2004 and 2005, with a bronze in 2003. And when Kwan finished with a bronze in the 2002 Olympic Games, Cohen was just out of the running in fourth.

But slowly, Cohen began to assert herself, finishing second in the past two World Championships. She rededicated herself to training, adding to her confidence, and moved from New York to California to rejoin her old coach, John Nicks. Meanwhile, Kwan struggled with injuries and in her attempt to adjust to the new Code of Points scoring system.

When Kwan pulled out of the nationals last month with an injury, it was finally Cohen's turn to shine. She won her first U.S. crown going away.

Whether Cohen will be able to overtake Russia's Irina Slutskaya, winner of the 2003 and 2005 world titles and gold-medal favorite, is a big question.

But after a long journey, her chance has arrived.

ANGELA RUGGIERO, 26, ice hockey

She is the face of U.S. women's hockey and knows something about facing off with the men, too.

Angela Ruggiero, part of the gold-medal winning team in 1998 and silver-medal team in 2002, made history last year when she became the first woman to play a position other than goalie in a U.S. men's pro hockey contest.

What made it extra special was that she teamed with brother Bill, goaltender for the Tulsa Oilers of the Central Hockey League.

When it was all done, Ruggiero, playing in her usual defenseman role, finished with an assist in 13 minutes on the ice. The sweaters worn by the siblings ended up in the Hockey Hall of Fame to mark the occasion of the first brother-sister combo to play together in a North American pro game.

"That definitely was a great steppingstone," she said. "And it was awesome to play with Bill. It was pretty special for me."

Ruggiero is pretty special herself. She is widely considered the best female defenseman in the world, and her contributions to the U.S. team have been substantial. Most recently, she scored the winning goal in a shootout against Canada in the 2005 World Championships, giving the United States its first victory over its archrival in the competition.

She is a four-time All-American from Harvard and in 2004 won the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award, given to the women's intercollegiate varsity hockey player who exhibits the highest standards of personal and team excellence during the season.

In her last Olympics, Ruggiero was one of eight athletes chosen to carry the World Trade Center flag in the Opening Ceremony. She sparked the team with a goal and three assists to reach the final, but Canada prevailed 3-2. Ruggiero was honored as the tournament's top defenseman, but it was small consolation. Beating Canada is the goal in '06.

"It always comes down to the U.S. and Canada," she said. "It's one of the best rivalries in women's sports."

SHANI DAVIS, 23, long-track speed skating

Events: 1,000 meters, 1,500, 5,000, team pursuit.

Shani Davis fell short of a dream last month on the short track.

He finished sixth at nationals, missing out on making the team by one spot. That prevented him from becoming the first athlete to qualify for the short-track and long-track speed-skating teams in the same Games.

But Davis still made history. He is the first African-American to make the speed-skating squad. "My biggest goal is simply to get on the podium and hopefully stand the highest," he said. "I just want to be the best guy at what I do."

Davis comes to Turin on a tear, including setting a world record in the 1,500 meters and earning 2005 U.S. Speedskating athlete of the year. In the process, he became the first African-American to win the all-around points championship. He finished ahead of Chad Hedrick, who had edged out Davis in 2004.

He'll square off against Hedrick in three events. And because they qualified before nationals, it's anybody's guess who will finish ahead of whom.

Davis and Hedrick have trained without the financial support of U.S. Speedskating because of a conflict over sponsorship; each has worn the patches of his sponsors, violating an agreement to display the emblem of the association's sponsor.

The controversy has strained Davis' relationship at times with the association but hasn't diminished his standing in the sport. Nor has it overshadowed his compelling personal story. He was raised by his mother on Chicago's South Side, and she learned quickly that roller skating was the best way to channel his energy.

He outran gangs and bullies as a teen on his way to practice at the Evanston Speed Skating Club, where a champion was born. Davis made the 2002 Olympic short-track team as an alternate. He didn't compete, but it served as an important learning experience. And he left Salt Lake City determined to make his mark four years later.

Now, one dream has faded, while another unfolds. And that's the long and short of it.

BODE MILLER, 28, Alpine skiing

Events: downhill, combined, super-G, giant slalom, slalom

By now, you've heard all about Bode.

The admission on 60 Minutes that he has competed while under the influence of alcohol, the Lone Wolf ways that often have put him at odds with U.S. Ski officials, the unorthodox ski techniques that have made him a true original on the slopes.

Still, there's no denying his monumentally successful track record and, despite a less than stellar buildup to Turin, his chances of bringing home a handful of gold medals.

One of the things that sets him out in the crowd is his unique training regimen.

Unlike many skiers, Miller doesn't turn to the weight room to strengthen his body and increase his endurance for world-class competitions.

Check out his Web site (bodemillerusa.com) and you'll see some of his unusual workout routines, such as pushing a 600-pound tennis court roller down a road or wheeling uphill on a unicycle.

Skiing magazine describes how Miller also favors single-leg squats on a 25-foot-long tightrope made of 2-inch thick webbing 4 feet above the ground, 40-second wind sprints, filling a wheelbarrow with rocks and pushing it all-out up a hill for 40-75 seconds, and rock climbing on a 40-foot wall in his barn.

He also does plenty of conventional squats. In a recent issue of Delta Sky, Miller - winner of two Olympic silvers in 2002 - explained how he trains to enhance his ability to make instantaneous decisions during races. Late in a grueling run, blood will rush to large muscles and not the brain, potentially impairing the thought process and muscle coordination.

"So part of my training includes eccentric squats with about 480 pounds," he told the magazine. "I take about a minute and 20 seconds to do eight repetitions. You go really slow, which creates a huge amount of oxygen debt. Then I come out of that and jump over these hurdles, really explosive jumps, and do four sets of those in about 10 seconds a set, one right after another."

Part of his training goal is to prevent boredom.

"I know what training is right for me," he added. "It takes a lifetime of experience to know which training routines make the most difference and how much to do each exercise to get the right results."

LINDSEY JACOBELLIS, 20, snowboarding

Events: snowboard cross

The snowboards have not started flying in Turin, but Lindsey Jacobellis is already working her way into America's consciousness.

That's what a TV commercial for the Visa check card, airing constantly the past two months, will do.

Yet Jacobellis wouldn't be showcased in the spot if it weren't for her solid success in the extreme sport side of the Games, her marketability to the youth demographic and her cute, curly-blond looks that make her a Madison Avenue dream.

She has gained plenty of attention as the lone female participant in the new Olympic event, the snowboardcross, which pits four jostling competitors against each other per heat. The Vermonter is a two-time X Games champ and won the 2005 worlds.

Jacobellis is part of a particularly strong women's snowboard contingent, which also features 2002 halfpipe gold medalist Kelly Peters, 2003 and 2005 X Games superpipe champion Gretchen Bleiler and 2004 X Games halfpipe champion and 2005 worlds bronze medalist Hannah Teter.

The "girls of snowboarding" are also getting lots of publicity with cameos in a music video by the Donnas promoting NBC's coverage.

In fact, there's a decided punk-grunge edge to the snowboard culture that is part of its youthful appeal. But Jacobellis consciously sets herself apart, striving to present herself well in interviews in hopes of being a role model.

"I would like people to view me as an individual and not to lump me in with all the rest of the bunch," she said. "Because I would love to have parents look at me as a wholesome American girl and say, "I want my child to get into snowboarding because of Lindsey. Lindsey is not some grunge kid.' "

She started as a skier but learned snowboarding from older brother Ben, taking it up full time at 10 and honing her skills in the Stratton Mountain School. Her parents were upset because of the sport's image, but they came around.

In 2002, Jacobellis ranked as the world junior snowboard cross champ and won the junior halfpipe title in '03. She finished the 2003-04 World Cup snowboard cross season unbeaten. Now she has a shot at gold in Turin, and more TV gold, too.

MICHELLE KWAN, 25, figure skating

She reached the Olympics this time by petition, not competition. So now the questions surround her.

Will this be Michelle Kwan's swan song as her career fades unceremoniously from the world stage?

Or can she somehow reconnect with her championship ways, which twice carried her to the brink of the gold medal, and finally grasp the one achievement that has escaped her?

That may be the story of the 2006 Games - the direction Kwan's amazing career ultimately will take.

Nobody can argue with Kwan's past accomplishments: five world titles, eight straight U.S. national championships and a record-tying nine overall.

And anyone who follows figure skating even casually knows of her Olympic-sized disappointments: twice she was favored to win the gold and led going into the final night, twice she was beaten by a young American teammate who skated the program of her life.

There was 15-year-old Tara Lapinski in 1998, when Kwan finished second, and 16-year-old Sarah Hughes in 2002, when Kwan wound up third.

These Olympic Games hardly look like the place for Kwan, now old by the sport's standards, to find gold. Russia's Irina Slutskaya is a heavy favorite on the heels of two straight world titles. And U.S. teammates Sasha Cohen and Kimmie Meissner - who finished 1-2 at the recent nationals that Kwan skipped with a groin pull - have had more time to adjust to the intricate new scoring system.

Furthermore, Kwan will perform under a bit of a cloud. The decision by the U.S. Figure Skating Association to add her to the team via petition - at the expense of third-place nationals finisher Emily Hughes - has drawn some pointed criticism.

The association clearly had no inclination to turn away the skater who has done so much for the sport. So now it is down to one last chance for Kwan, who, despite the odds, is following the intensively competitive instincts that have carried her this far.

"My desire and my love for the competition and for skating is always pulling me back," she said. "And I feel like I can win."

Stay tuned. The story may have one more twist yet.

VONETTA FLOWERS, 32, bobsled

For Vonetta Flowers, Italy is not only the land of hope for a second Olympic gold medal.

It is the country that has given hope to one of her 3-year-old twin boys, Jorden. On Dec. 20, he had pioneering brain surgery in Verona in an attempt to correct a birth defect that left him deaf.

The procedure is not approved for children under 12 in the United States. But if it succeeds, Jorden will be able to hear like Jaden, both born three months premature. Doctors turned on a device activating electrodes placed in the part of the brain that controls hearing and things look promising: Jorden responded to sound for the first time last week.

"We dream about hearing our voices and saying "mommy' and "daddy'," Flowers told ABC News.

That would mean far more than any medal for Flowers, a top brakeman who teams with driver Jean Prahm. Still, Flowers continues to strive for gold again. In 2002, the Alabama native made history when she and her driver at the time, Jill Bakken, came out of nowhere to win in Salt Lake City. In so doing, Flowers became the first athlete of African descent to win Winter Olympics gold.

She had been a track star at the University of Alabama. She reached the 1996 Olympic trials, but nagging injuries ended her chance at qualifying in the 100 meters and long jump. She tried again for the 2000 Games, but torn ankle ligaments did her in.

Flowers was devastated. She retired and become a graduate assistant at Alabama coaching the men's track team. That's when her husband, Johnny Flowers, saw the bobsled tryout flyer. It sounded crazy, but he convinced his wife they should try out together. He didn't make it; she was a natural.

Flowers' explosive speed made her an ideal brakeman. Though she was dropped by her first driver, she landed a job with Bakken. They proceeded to upstage the favored team featuring driver Jean Racine (whose married surname is Prahm) for the gold.

When Bakken took time off to go to school, Flowers joined Prahm in 2003. They've trailed teammates Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming this year but have a medal shot. And that would be another dream come true in Italy.