Olympics

MASON: Surprising Americans start strong

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Steve Mason

 
   
 

SALT LAKE CITY

The Winter Olympics has its first official babe. Did you happen to catch Kari Traa's act Saturday in the ? I got my own up-close and personal with the freestyle skier last night at Olympic Medals Plaza. Kari, along with the 11 other medallists from Saturday's competition, all showed up in downtown Salt Lake to pick her hardware. After winning the gold medal, I asked her how she felt about being declared the first official babe of the Salt Lake Games by "an American website," and she was thrilled about it. I didn't tell her that I was the writer and that I would publish the news Sunday at FOXSports.com. Kari came into the women's moguls as a heavy favorite, which didn't seem to bother her as she bumped and bounced her way to the top score. When I asked her if she was surprised to be on the medal podium, she answered a simple "No." These are not your father's Olympics. I hung out at the Olympic Medals Plaza where all medals won are awarded nightly in a spectacular show. After the medals were handed out in the first four events of these games, The Dave Matthews Band put on a tremendous set wrapped with an encore of All Along the Watchtower. As Matthews fans held their lighters high, a huge fireworks show lit up the sky Mixing medals and rock 'n roll seems to be a concerted effort to eliminate some of the "holy church of the Olympics" reverence and make this international event more fun. Handing out medals in front of a raucous crowd as they get ready for a free concert from the likes of Barenaked Ladies, Nelly Furtado, and Brooks & Dunn is a way to "sell" the games to a new generation of fans. Finishing second to Kari Traa in the women's moguls was American Shannon Bahrke from Tahoe City, Calif. When I talked to her Saturday night, she had her hair in pigtails, some kind of sparkly stuff on her face and a silver medal around her neck. Her "gee whiz" wholesomeness was an interesting counterpoint to Kari's sex-kitten looks. Plus, Shannon was clearly amazed to be wearing that medal. Bahrke nailed her "iron cross" and "helicopter" maneuvers to emerge from nowhere and claim the silver. Amazement best sums up the men who collected gold and silver in the at the Olympic Oval Saturday. Jochem Uytdehaage from the Netherlands won the event. On the medal stand, he came across a little like Screech from Saved By the Bell. He danced before and after the Dutch national anthem, and although it wasn't the Lambada, those Jochem dance moves should be forbidden. He did help me learn to pronounce his name. Phonetically, it's YO-khum OUT-duh-hauk. The victory in the 5,000-meter is only his second win, the first coming in the recent European Championships. The silver medallist just behind Jochem was American Derek Parra from San Bernadino, Calif. A year ago, Parra finished 15th at the World Championships at the Olympic Oval in Salt Lake. Saturday, he posted a World Record time until bested by Uytdehaage. I believe the performances of Bahrke and Parra are the beginning of a trend. Let's call it "The War On Apathy." We are all bound by a national pride that had been in hibernation pre-September 11. What better way to tell the world "I'm Proud To Be An American" than to make a statement with success in Olympic competition? When I talked to Derek, he told me that as he was skating, he began to reflect on everything that has happened in the last year. "I was thinking about the good and the bad. The birth of my baby girl Mia ... what happened 9/11 ... the opening ceremonies last night ... it was all in my head." American athletes are taking the terrorist attacks on the United States to heart. There's always a huge Olympic home team advantage (the Japanese team was spectacular in Nagano, and Australian athletes excelled in Sydney), but this time around, the national pride is even more intense. I think we can expect more stunning, out-of-the-blue performances from the U.S. team. Even when they don't outright win, U.S. athletes are turning in surprising performances. Entering Sunday's finale, the 15K cross-country race, two Americans were in striking distance of the medal stand. The Nordic combined is perhaps the event where the U.S. has had the least success. The event amounts to two ski jumps from the 90K hill combined with a 15K on skis. In Olympic history, the U.S. has had one Top 10 finish. Yet, after Saturday's jumping, Bill Demong from Vermontville, N.Y., and Todd Lodwick from Steamboat Springs, Colo., were 7th and 8th respectively. My friend David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian and the author of The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics, is on the record as saying that an American medal in the Nordic Combined would be the biggest upset at the Salt Lake Games. Todd set high goals coming in. He wasn't aiming for a Top 10 finish or the best American finish ever. Lodwick told me that he was in it for an Olympic medal. In the complicated scoring system, I tried to understand how far behind the leader he was. He's a big football fan (he said he was happy to be in 7th because that was John Elway's number), so I asked him to give me an idea of how far behind he was in football-speak. "I'm two touchdowns down in the 4th quarter," he said. "The Rams did it; why not me?" This morning in the 15K race, the final leg of the Nordic combined, he performed more like an 8-8 team. He treaded water in the race and finished 7th overall. Demong drifted back to 19th and American Matt Dayton got up to 18th. I know what you're thinking. Big deal ... 7th place. But remember, Lodwick was competing with 80 years of futility by the U.S. and 80 years of heritage for countries like Norway and Finland. The world should be careful about counting American athletes out in any competition here. I had a chance to witness the first remarkable performance of the games in person Sunday morning. is a great sport to see live. The crowd is rowdy, the hill is big, the skiers are crazy, and the competition is fierce. Coming into Sunday's K90 ski jumping event, Adam Malysz from Poland was the prohibitive favorite. Second choice in the field was Sven Hannawald of Germany. If you made book on the event, Malyze was about 2-1 and Hannawald was 5-2. A kid from Switzerland named Simon Ammann was the 9th ranked jumper in the world entering competition and about a 20-1 pick to win the gold medal. Amman had a spectacular 98-meter jump in the first round staking him to a narrow lead over Hannawald and Malyze in that order. The media types in my booth were speculating that the German and the Pole were set to do battle on the second and final K90 jump. Nobody considered the possibility that Ammann would win. Adam Malyze was up first, and he was huge down the hill for 98 meters, but he got hurt on style points (as often happens with Polish guys ... like yours truly). That allowed the German Hannawald, with great air and flawless technique, to grab hold of the top spot ... with just one jumper remaining. Simon Amman stood at the top of the K90 jump run with 20,000+ cheering and a worldwide audience. Into his tuck, down the ramp at 55 miles per hour, taking off powerfully, leaning over his skis for what seemed like an eternity, and finishing with a perfect Telemark landing ... and Switzerland had its first gold medal ever in ski jumping. Ski jumping is another blind spot in the American Olympic vision, but Alan Alborn from Anchorage continued the U.S. surge with a quiet but solid 11th place finish. Neither Alborn nor any U.S. jumper finished better than 23rd at the last two World Championships. Steve Mason regularly anchors Fox Sports Saturday Night and We Are There Sunday on . He is broadcasting the Salt Lake games for Westwood One Radio Network. Steve previously anchored the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan and the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. His new television interview show, The Steve Mason Show, will premiere on PBS in September 2002.

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