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Five world athletes to watch

By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published February 10, 2006


HERMANN MAIER, 33, Alpine skiing

Events: downhill, super-G, giant slalom

The "Herminator" is back.

Legendary Austrian Alpine skier Hermann Maier, so big in his homeland that he appears on a postage stamp, provided one of the great stories in the 1998 Nagano Games. He missed a turn during a downhill run, went flying and crashed hard, frightening anyone who saw it.

But Maier walked away uninjured, then returned in the coming days to win the gold medal in the super-G and giant slalom. The spectacular accident - and amazing comeback - led to his Herminator nickname courtesy of a fellow Austrian, the Terminator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

At the time, Maier was well on his way to world dominance. He had amassed 41 victories in four years by the end of the 2000-01 season (putting him fourth all time behind skiers whose higher totals were built over 10 years). But then Maier crashed again, this time nearly losing a leg in a motorcycle accident.

Doctor's inserted a 7-inch titanium rod and Maier began an intense rehabilitation. But he wasn't ready for the 2002 Games. In 2003, a muscle pull slowed his progress and Maier failed to qualify for Austria's World Cup giant slalom team. But he was named a provisional member on the basis of his past achievements and potential to soar again.

In 2004, Maier did just that, winning the overall World Cup title. Not bad for an athlete who, at 15, was kicked out of a prestigious Austrian ski academy and told he wasn't going to cut it as a big-time skier.

But the scrawny 100-pounder bulked up and persevered. Now, he's an Austrian hero. And those Maier stamps? All 600,000 were sold in six weeks.

YEVGENY PLUSHENKO, 23, figure skating

Simply put, Yevgeny Plushenko owns the ice.

Russians have won the three previous men's figure skating titles, and Plushenko, barring any unexpected problems, should make it four in a row (five counting skaters born in the former Soviet Union).

Here's a measure of just how good the Russian superskater is:

Since the new scoring system was implemented at the 2005 world championships, Plushenko owns the top six scores awarded and eight of the top 10. His top score is 23 points higher than the next best. Four years ago, Plushenko was expected to win the gold in Salt Lake City, entering as a 19-year-old world champion. But a fall in the short program led to his rival, Alexei Yagudin, winning the gold and Plushenko the silver.

He has lost only two times since the 2002 Olympics, both in the 2003-04 season. He is known for his unparalleled jumping ability (the first to pull off a quad-triple-triple combo in a competition) and flashy performance style.

Plushenko is a celebrity in Russia. His 2004 wedding to a university student was a major social event. He has won seven Russian national crowns. All that's missing is an Olympic gold.

KARI TRAA, 32, Freestyle skiing

Event: moguls

Think fast. Who won the women's moguls skiing gold medal in 2002?

Okay, so you didn't watch.

Chances are you wouldn't remember the name Kari Traa anyway, distinctive as it is. But in the high-flying, stunt-heavy world of moguls, Norway's Traa is one of the best - and toughest.

Her Olympic resume stretches all the way back to 1992, when she finished 14th in the Albertville Olympics. But just before the Lillehammer Olympics in '94, Traa injured her knee in a World Cup event. The surgery, one of seven knee operations in her career, forced her to miss the Games in her home country.

Four years later, Traa was back in the groove, earning a bronze in Nagano, and she defeated Shannon Bahrke of the United States in the final for the gold.

Traa finished second in the 2004-05 World Cup standings, though she did not fare well at the 2005 World Championships, placing 15th. Still, given her experience in the Olympic spotlight, Traa should be a medal contender. Whatever happens, she's a star in Norway, where her name is better known than ever, showcased by her very own Kari Traa fashion line.

IRINA SLUTSKAYA, 27, figure skating

Nobody knew what was wrong with Irina Slutskaya.

The 2002 Olympic silver medalist in women's figure skating - and winner of the 2002 World Championships - was clearly ill in the summer of 2003. But doctors were baffled.

The acclaimed Russian skater felt exhausted. Her legs hurt. Trips to the hospital in Moscow didn't provide answers, though the diagnosis at first pointed to pneumonia and a heart inflammation.

Finally, after Slutskaya's condition worsened, doctor's figured it out. She was suffering from inflammation of the veins, known as vasculitis. The illness was brought under control, and Slutskaya returned to skating after taking several months off. Though she wasn't in peak form at the 2004 World Championships, she returned to her winning ways soon, capturing the 2005 world title.

Slutskaya, who turned 27 Thursday, is poised to accomplish something no Russian woman has done in figure skating: win the gold medal. At four of the last five Games, the reigning world champion has won the gold. In 2002, Slutskaya came close, losing to U.S. upstart Sarah Hughes in a close decision challenged by the Russians. Meanwhile, she has made history on a different front, winning her seventh European title in January to pass Sonja Henie and Katarina Witt. She heads to Turin as the heavy favorite.

GIORGIO ROCCA, 30, Alpine skiing

Events: slalom, giant slalom

Giorgio Rocca should soon hear his name chanted loud and often by enthusiastic Italian fans. He has been giving his homeland much to cheer about lately, with a perfect record in five slalom outings through mid January.

Rocca came from behind to win his fifth, joining two huge Alpine names - Italian legend Alberto Tomba and Swedish great Ingemar Stenmark - as the only men to pull off five consecutive victories in World Cup slalom competition.

He didn't make much of a splash in his first Olympics in 2002 but has steadily come on strong, winning bronze medals at the World Championships in 2003 and 2005 (as well as finishing third in the combined).

Rocca has gotten help from a sports psychologist and things seem to be falling into place for a run at the gold in front of the home crowd. He has a newborn son - and the knees that gave him trouble in the past are healthy.

FIVE MORE TO WATCH

SHIZUKA ARAKAWA, 24, Women's Figure Skating - She beat Sasha Cohen for the gold at the 2004 world championships, becoming Japan's first world champ in a decade.

AHN HYUN-SOO, 20, Men's Short Track - South Korea's standout has a shot to win four medals.

STEPHANE LAMBIEL, 20, Men's Figure Skating - The Swiss won the 2005 world championship after Russia's Yevgeny Plushenko pulled out with an injury. He's Switzerland's first male champion in nearly 60 years.

ANJA PAERSON, 24, Women's Alpine Skiing - The Swede won silver and bronze medals in Salt Lake City and boasts six world championship medals.

EMANUEL SANDHU, 25, Men's Figure Skating - After missing the 2002 Games due to injury, the Canadian is coming off a strong 2005-06 season and is capable of beating top competition.