Ready for Takeoff

Four years after the best American showing ever at the Winter Games, a U.S. team rich in talent and personality will try to flyeven higher
February 06, 2006

There was atime not so long ago when the U.S. was a Winter Olympics also-ran. It producedsublime figure skaters and the occasional Eric Heiden or Bonnie Blair, andpulled off hockey miracles every now and again, but it generally ended up welldown in the medal standings. ¶ Then came Salt Lake City. The combination of thehome-country advantage, a wellspring of Sun Belt talent and strength in newersports like snowboarding and skeleton lifted Team USA to 34 medals, by far itsmost ever. The U.S. finished second in the medal count, two behind Germany.Suddenly 2006--and the Turin Olympics--couldn't come soon enough. ¶ Theexcellence of the 215-member team the U.S. is sending to these Gamesunderscores an old truth: Success begets success. In 2002 inline skater ChadHedrick (a Texan) watched on TV as speedskater Derek Parra (a Californian) wontwo medals; Hedrick switched sports and is now a world-record holder who'llrace in five events in Turin. Parra will be there too, along with most of theother '02 U.S. medalists. The '06 team has all the wonderful stories of itspredecessors--the pizzeria owner who captains the curling team, the twin-sisterbiathletes, the women's hockey goalie battling epilepsy--but it also carries anew burden: expectations. So goodbye, Utah. This time the show's on theroad.


Kimmie Meissner(figure skating), 16. The high school junior is 5 1/2 months younger than theU.S. team's youngest male, ski jumper Anders Johnson, also 16, who's America'syoungest Nordic skiing Olympian ever.


Scott Baird(curling), 54. The Bemidji, Minn., native is an insurance agent. Runner-up:Chris Chelios (hockey), 44.


Rena Inoue (figureskating), 4'11". Born in Japan, Inoue (in-KNOW-we) became a U.S. citizen inSeptember.


Derian Hatcher(hockey), 6'5". Hatcher and his older brother, Kevin, also a defenseman,both played on the '98 Olympic team.


Many athletes havecompeted at the highest level in another sport. Jeremy Bloom (moguls skiing)was a wideout and a punt returner at Colorado and has set his sights on an NFLcareer. Shaun White (snowboarding) won a professional skateboarding tournamentlast June. Bethany Hart (bobsled) threw the hammer at the 2005 World Track andField Championships. Shauna Rohbock (bobsled) played soccer for two seasons inthe WUSA. Todd Hays (bobsled) was a national kickboxing champion. Carl Swenson(cross-country skiing) won a silver medal in mountain biking at the 1999 Pan-AmGames.


Johnny Spillane(Nordic combined) has competed all winter in his sport, a combination of skijumping and cross-country skiing, despite a separated right shoulder that willrequire surgery after the Games.


Kris Freeman(cross-country skiing) was told by a doctor in 2000 that he had diabetes andhis athletic career was over. But Freeman, now 25, kept skiing, learned tomanage the disease (he injects himself with insulin up to 10 times daily) andin 2003 became the world under-23 champion at 30 kilometers. Chanda Gunn(hockey) had her first epileptic seizure in fourth grade and began havingalmost daily seizures after enrolling at Wisconsin. Gunn learned to control herepilepsy with medication and diet, and the now 25-year-old goalie led the the 2005 world title by shutting down Canada in the finals.


Anthony Lobello(short-track speedskating) was named one of the country's 50 Hottest Bachelorsin the November 2005 issue of Cosmopolitan. Apolo Anton Ohno (short-trackspeedskating) was one of People's 50 Most Beautiful People in 2002. Mike Modano(hockey) made People's 100 Most Eligible Bachelors list in 2000.


Matt Savoie (figureskating), a summa cum laude graduate of Bradley, has a master's degree in urbanplanning from Illinois and will enroll this fall in Cornell Law School. AllisonBaver (short-track speedskating), a Penn State grad, was studying for the GMATswhile on the World Cup circuit in Europe two years ago when on a break she cameacross an article in the Financial Times about online MBA programs and decidedto sign up. She's now getting her MBA from New York Tech's Ellis Collegethrough Internet courses, and when she's done, she may go to law school.


Jeret Peterson(aerial skiing) won more than $200,000 playing blackjack in Las Vegas lastsummer.


Maureen Brunt andJessica Schultz (curling) have the Olympic rings and a curling stone tattooedonto their lower backs. Kip Carpenter (long-track speedskating) has the ringsand a speedskater on his back, and J.P. Kepka (short-track speedskating) hasthe rings on his right thigh. Julie Chu (hockey) made a deal in 1998 with herfather, Wah, that if she ever made an Olympic team, they'd both get tattoos.After Chu played in the 2002 Games, her entire family, including her mother andtwo siblings, ended up getting tattoos of the rings and Chu's jersey number,13.


1. Minnesota(31)

2. New York(19)

3. California(17)

4. Colorado(12)

T5. Massachusetts(11)

T5. Utah (11)

(Based on athletes'birthplaces; 12 states have no Olympians.)


Both Chris Druryand Krissy Wendell (hockey) pitched in the Little League World Series, forteams from Connecticut and Minnesota, respectively. Wendell is one of fivegirls ever to have played in the event.


Pete Fenson(curling) owns and operates two pizzerias in Minnesota.


Katie Uhlaender(skeleton) is the daughter of former major league outfielder Ted Uhlaender.Lanny and Tracy Barnes (biathlon) are twin sisters. KC Boutiette and JenniferRodriguez (long-track speedskating) are married. John Grahame (hockey) is halfof the only mother-son combination to have their names engraved on the StanleyCup. (Charlotte Grahame was senior director of hockey administration for theColorado Avalanche when the team won the 2001 Stanley Cup. John was a member ofthe '04 champion Tampa Bay Lightning.)


Sarah Konrad(biathlon, cross-country skiing) has not only done postdoctoral research ingeology at Wyoming but is also the first U.S. woman to qualify in two sportsfor the same Winter Games.


Among the eightteam members who were not born in the U.S., two are originally from SouthKorea. Kim Hyo-Jung (short-track speedskating), whose teammates call her Halie,has dual citizenship. She moved to Colorado two years ago to train. Toby Dawson(moguls) was abandoned on a doorstep in Pusan as a toddler and knows neitherhis birth name nor his birth date; he was adopted by two Vail, Colo., skiinstructors at age three.


Jay Hakkinen(biathlon) won't talk about religion, politics or women in the week before amajor race because those topics get him worked up, and he needs to remain calmfor the shooting portion of his event. Hannah Teter (snowboarding) brings alonga bottle of her family's homemade maple syrup on her travels; she grew uphelping her father and four older brothers make 100 gallons a year tappingmaple trees near their home in Belmont, Vt.

U-S-A, U-S-A

Of the 23 men'shockey players, only one, Jordan Leopold, plays for an NHL team based inCanada, the Calgary Flames.

COLOR PHOTOMONTAGEPortfolio by Michael O'Neill TheAerial Circus
AS MEMBERS of the Flying Ace All Stars, a group of freestyle skiers andsnowboarders who perform exhibitions around the country, aerial skiers (fromleft) Jeret (Speedy) Peterson, Joe Pack, Eric Bergoust and Ryan St. Onge areproven showstoppers. They're competitive aces too: Peterson, 24, is thedefending World Cup overall champion; Pack, 27, won the Olympic silver medal inSalt Lake City in 2002; Bergoust, 36, a four-time Olympian, was the '98 goldmedalist in Nagano; and '05 U.S. champ St. Onge, 22, is the top American inthis season's World Cup standings. "Every single person who does aerials isa little crazy," says St. Onge of flying to heights of 45 feet or more offa steep, 13-foot ramp. "It hurts even when you do it right, but thenthere's never been an injury I haven't enjoyed."
ILLUSTRATION PHOTOPortfolio by Michael O'Neill TheSuper Shredders
THE SNOWBOARDING team is stacked. Standing, from left: Seth Wescott, HannahTeter, Gretchen Bleiler, Elena Hight, Mason Aguirre, Kelly Clark. Sitting:Danny Kass, Andy Finch, Lindsey Jacobellis. Wescott and Jacobellis are worldsnowboardcross champs. Clark won gold and Kass silver in the halfpipe in 2002.In Turin, Shaun White (not pictured) is the men's halfpipefavorite.
PHOTOPortfolio by Michael O'Neill TheSteeled Veterans
WITH EIGHT Olympic trips between them, long-track speedskaters CaseyFitzRandolph (left), 31, and Chris Witty, 30, are fixtures at the Games. Bothovercame hurdles to win their first gold medals in 2002. FitzRandolph had longbattled injuries--including a broken kneecap, a broken sternum and torn kneeand shoulder ligaments--but he became the first U.S. skater since Eric Heidenin 1980 to win the 500 meters. Witty, who competed in the 2000 Summer Games incycling, revealed to a team psychologist before the '02 Winter Games that she'dbeen sexually abused by a neighbor as a child (a torment she made public lastyear). Despite the emotional drain, Witty won the 1,000 in Salt LakeCity.
PHOTOPortfolio by Michael O'Neill The RockStar
LOCAL LEGEND says that Paul Bunyan was born in Bemidji, Minn., and that thestate's numerous lakes were formed in his footprints and those of hiscompanion, Babe the Blue Ox. These days Cassie (above), 24, and Jamie Johnson,25, two sisters from Bemidji, are leaving their marks on the curling world.Cassie was the skip (the captain) and Jamie a team member on thesilver-medal-winning U.S. squad at the 2005 worlds. The sisters are borncurlers: Their parents, Tim and Liz, won a national mixed title in 1980 whenLiz was five months pregnant with Jamie.
PHOTOPortfolio by Michael O'Neill The NewRomantics
TWO U.S. skating duos are partners on and off the ice. Rena Inoue and JohnBaldwin (far right) are the first pair ever to land a throw triple Axel incompetition, which they did in winning nationals last month. A two-timeOlympian for Japan, Inoue, 29, moved to the U.S. in 1999 and found immediatechemistry with Baldwin, 32, whose father is a skating coach. Ice dancersMelissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov (second and third from left) discovered eachother online, when, looking for skating partners, they began exchanginge-mails, pictures and résumés over the Internet. After Petukhov, 27, arrivedfrom Russia, the two fell in love and on Feb. 2, 2001, he and Gregory, 24, weremarried in Las Vegas. Team USA has an active singles crowd as well, including21-year-old national champion Sasha Cohen (center, and page 74) and KimmieMeissner (far left), 16, the first American woman since Tonya Harding to land atriple Axel in competition.
PHOTOPortfolio by Michael O'Neill TheBlade Runners
PILLORIED IN the press in 2002 for dumping her brakeman (and best friend)before the Olympics, driver Jean (Racine) Prahm (left) has a new partner:Vonetta Flowers, who in Salt Lake City became the first black athlete to winWinter Games gold. Flowers hopes Italy is doubly rewarding: Son Jorden, 3, whowas born deaf (unlike twin brother Jaden), recently had an auditory brain stemimplant in Verona that may allow him to hear.
PHOTOPortfolio by Michael O'Neill TheDouble Threat
HAVING WON bronze in 1998 and silver in 2002, Mark Grimmette and Brian Martinwill try to complete their set of medals in Turin by bringing home the U.S.'sfirst Olympic gold in luge. It would be the culmination of a decadelongpartnership that has already produced three World Cup overall titles (1998, '99and '03). "We've been together 10 years, which is longer than most marriedcouples," says Grimmette, 35, who roomed with Martin, 31, at the Universityof Denver. Their sport is a curious spectacle, two men (though rules do allowwomen or mixed couples) lying on top of each other and almost blindly racingdown an icy course. The slider on top is the larger man, in this case the6'1", 198-pound Grimmette, and he steers with his legs. The smaller slider(Martin is 5'8", 162) goes on the bottom and helps guide the sled withleans of his shoulders. A pair must anticipate turns in sync at 85 mph duringraces timed to thousandths of a second. "We've experienced just abouteverything in this sport," says Grimmette, who's eager to add one last,golden experience, in Turin.