Tuesday February 2nd, 2010

Even as Shaun White confirmed his position as red-topped king of the pipe with a superpipe run that included a mind-bending Double McTwist 1260, last week's X Games in Aspen, Colo., may have set the pre-Olympic landscape for some of the country's top snowboarders.

Like White, Gretchen Bleiler, the reigning Olympic silver medalist in the halfpipe, has had her share of off-snow exposure, including magazine modeling, talk shows and TV commentary. Bleiler seemingly had fallen behind Kelly Clark, the Olympic champ in 2002, who had won four events this year, but Bleiler nailed the cork 900 that has been in the works to defeat Clark and win the X Games superpipe title. With '06 champ Hannah Teter also back on the team again and Australia's Torah Bright dinged up from a pair of concussions, a U.S. sweep in Vancouver looks like a possibility.

Nate Holland won his fifth straight snowboarder X title at the X Games, even as he had to dodge a nasty chain collision of riders during his semifinal run. The win sets up Holland as a medal favorite at the comparable Olympic snowboard cross event in Vancouver. Seth Wescott finished second to take silver with Nick Baumgartner sixth and Graham Watanabe, another Vancouver medal candidate, seventh after getting caught in the semifinal collision.

On the women's side, Lindsey Jacobellis won her third straight X Games title, holding off Norwegian rival Helene Olafsen at the end. Jacobellis will have a chance to atone for her disappointment in Turin, where she seemingly had a gold medal in her back pocket, but fell while hot dogging a jump at the end of the race and finished second.

The injury list is getting longer as the Olympics are getting closer and several athletes with either high profiles or high medal hopes had some bad medical reports this past week.

Daron Rahlves, the 36-year-old Olympic veteran who converted from alpine to ski cross, suffered a dislocated hip injury on Sunday during a ski cross race at the X Games, jeopardizing his prospects for Vancouver. He was released from an Aspen hospital later that day after dislocating the hip for the fourth time in his career. The three-time Olympian and former world champ in the alpine super-G flew off the course after a series of bumps in the middle of the run.

Rahlves' 37-year-old teammate, Casey Puckett, was on a parallel ski course of sorts. Like Rahlves, he had made the transition from alpine skiing to ski cross. The four-time Olympian had separated his shoulder in January during a race in France and re-injured it this past weekend at the X Games. During a qualifying run on Friday, Puckett jammed the shoulder after failing to set himself properly during one of the propelling bumps on the course. Puckett said he was still expecting to compete in Vancouver.

Swiss alpine stalwart Didier Cuche insists he'll be ready for the speed races in Vancouver even after breaking a bone in his right thumb last week. Cuche had a titanium plate and several screws placed in the thumb in order to stabilize it after a nasty crash during a giant slalom in Kranska Gora, Slovenia, on Friday. The 35-year-old became the oldest world champion when he won the super-G title last season. If healthy, he's considered one of the favorites in that race and in the downhill in Vancouver.

Cuche has always been among the most popular skiers on the world cup circuit. At a generous 5-foot-9, 196 pounds, the bald Swiss is a fearless bulldog, known for keeping himself in impeccable condition. He celebrates victories not just by unclicking his skis, but also by flicking the right ski off his foot and twirling it into the air before catching it.

Australian halfpipe queen Bright skipped the X Games because of the compounding effects of concussions. Bright suffered a pair of them during the past week after some hard knocks in training on the superpipe. The Mormon skier lives with her brother/coach in Utah and balances her conservative lifestyle at home with a risky fearlessness on the pipe. In Vancouver, she was hoping to land a double cork, a trick that has so far been the domain of her male counterparts.

Austrian ski jumper Andreas Kofler injured his back and tibia after falling during a training jump in Oberstdorf, Germany, on Sunday. Kofler was the winner of the prestigious Four Hills competition this season and was a good bet to win gold with his countrymen in the team event in Vancouver.

Italian alpiner Nadia Fanchini hurt both of her knees during a nasty spill on the super-G course in St. Moritz, Switzerland, on Sunday. Fanchini smacked head-on into a gate and pitched forward, absorbing most of the impact of her fall with the knees rather than her lower or upper legs. She screamed for several minutes after suffering the injury, but insisted on walking off the course with assistance rather than accept an airlift or a stretcher.

Fanchini was a bronze medalist in the downhill at the world championships in Val-d'Isère, France, last season. She placed fourth in the world super-G in '05. She had nine podium finishes in world cup races and her one victory took place in Canada, at Lake Louise in '08. Doctors said it was unlikely that she could compete in Vancouver.

New Jersey Devils defenseman Paul Martin made it official this week that he will not be ready for the Games after missing most of the NHL's regular season with a broken left arm. Martin fractured the forearm in a game on Oct. 24 against the Penguins and had held out hope of playing in Vancouver until late last week. The U.S. team has not named a replacement for Martin, whose intelligent two-way play will be hard to match. Ryan Whitney of Anaheim would seem like a logical choice, but Tim Gleason of Carolina likely will get consideration, too.

While the identity of the person who will light the cauldron in Vancouver remains a mystery -- the logical pick is Wayne Gretzky -- speedskater Clara Hughes was introduced this week as the athlete who will carry the Canadian flag at the opening ceremonies. At 37, Hughes is putting the cap on a remarkable career that has included both summer and winter success. As a road cyclist, Hughes won bronze medals in both the road race and time trial at the Atlanta Games in '96. She also made the team four years later in Sydney and bookended the road honors with medals on the track, taking a silver in the individual pursuit at the 1991 Pan-Am Games and a bronze in the points race at the Commonwealth Games in '02.

She then turned her attention to the ice, winning a bronze in Salt Lake City in the 5,000 meters and a gold in that race four years later in Turin. While Hughes likely won't win a medal in Vancouver -- her best distance these days is still the 5,000 -- she's already the only athlete ever to win multiple medals at both the winter and summer Olympics.

Inspired by Joey Cheek's gesture of giving his gold-medal bonus money in Turin to Right to Play, the athlete-driven humanitarian organization headed by speedskater Johann Olav Koss, Hughes donated $10,000 of her own money to Right to Play, since she received no bonus money for her medals. She was made an officer of the Order of Canada in '07 and the following year received an honorary doctorate from the University of British Columbia.

A fourth U.S. track relay team is likely to be stripped of its medals for drug use. Crystal Cox, who ran in the heats of the 4x400-meter relay in Athens '04, recently admitted to using anabolic steroids from the infamous BALCO labs in California and will be subject to a four-year suspension at age 30.

Cox didn't even run in the final that year, when Monique Richardson, Monique Hennagan, Sanya Richards and Deedee Trotter later won the gold medal ahead of Russia, Jamaica and Great Britain.

Two U.S. relay teams from the '00 Sydney Games were stripped of medals because of Marion Jones' drug admissions, and the men's 4x400 team also included doping violators Antonio Pettigrew and Jerome Young.

Fittingly, Cox was among the early dismissals on the reality series Survivor when the show took place in Gabon. Now, she has been voted off the island again.

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