Why U.S. freestyle team is 'peaking at right time'

January, 26, 2010

Sixteen athlete-acrobats were named to the U.S. Olympic freestyle ski team in the disciplines of moguls and aerials Tuesday. Just one of them, moguls specialist Shannon Bahrke, has previously medaled at a Winter Games (silver in 2002). She and her teammates on the bumps probably represent the country's strongest podium hopes, along with aerials veteran Jeret "Speedy" Peterson.

Led by defending World Cup champion Hannah Kearney, the women's moguls squad is "peaking at exactly the right time," U.S. coach Jeff Wintersteen said. Kearney and Bahrke finished 1-2 in the final World Cup event before the Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., last week, followed by teammates Heather McPhie and veteran Michelle Roark.

"I haven't been part of a sweep like that since junior worlds in '03," Kearney said. Although she clinched her Olympic team slot by winning the U.S. trials back in December, Kearney had been fighting what she recently called a "slump" in form and was buoyed by her win.

Kearney was a medal favorite going into Torino four years ago, but didn't make it out of qualifying. No sooner had that wound started to heal when she blew out her knee and had to take a year off from competition. The time away resulted in a new focus and new dedication to fitness.

As high as the women moguls skiers are riding, most people's pick going into Vancouver will be 2006 gold medalist Jennifer Heil of Canada, who's currently ranked first in the World Cup standings. (Kearney broke Heil's four-event streak in Lake Placid.)

"I don't envy her," said Kearney, who knows what that pressure can be like, but added, "The most impressive thing about her is that she's consistently skiing at the top of her ability level."

Defending world champion Patrick Deneen, 22, headlines the men's moguls team with another young talent, Bryon Wilson, and seasoned performers Nate Roberts and Michael Morse.

On the aerials side, the colorful, outspoken Peterson will be competing in his third Olympics and hopes his trademark "Hurricane" trick will be enough to blow away other contenders for the gold medal -- although adverse conditions could make the "will-he-or-won't-he" a game-day decision. His teammate, Ryan St. Onge, an 2006 Olympian and 2009 world champion, hopes to turn around what has been a difficult 2009-10 season thus far. Gifted young jumpers Dylan Ferguson and Matt DePeters will be headed to their first Olympics.

Aerials veteran Emily Cook, who missed the last two World Cup competitions with a bruised heel, will be joined by Olympic rookies Lacy Schnoor, who clinched her spot at the U.S. trials, Jana Lindsey and 16-year-old Ashley Caldwell. Wintersteen said Caldwell originally was tabbed as a 2016 hopeful, but progressed much more quickly than expected in training. Caldwell was part of the Elite Air program launched in response to China's successful development program.

Much-decorated alpine skiing veterans Daron Rahlves and Casey Puckett were named to the team in the new sport of skicross, which resembles roller derby on snow. Both will be trying for the Olympic medal that eluded them on the traditional side of the sport. No U.S. woman qualified for the team.

Their take:

• Hannah Kearney (women's moguls), on how injury and rehab taught her to be more professional: "[Leading up to '06], I trained by being a high school student. Turns out that's not the best way to win a gold medal."

• Patrick Deneen (men's moguls), on the potentially difficult conditions at Cypress Mountain: "Skiing on soft snow is really fun, and makes the course easy ... everyone's going to be skiing really well, which makes it harder to set yourself apart from the crowd."

• Lacy Schnoor (women's aerials), on learning gravity-defying tricks: "It's something you get into and work up to. It's like a ladder. You don't start at the top -- you slowly get there."

• Jeret "Speedy" Peterson (men's aerials), on his signature triple-flip, quintuple-twist trick known as the "Hurricane": "I don't feel I have to do it to be at the top of the podium. I've won more World Cups not doing it than doing it. But I'm very confident I can land it at the Olympics and very close to being where I want to be with it."

Bonnie D. Ford

ESPN Senior Writer



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