Young talent among U.S. sliding teams

February, 12, 2010

A couple of hours after "elder statesman" luge doubles man and five-time Olympian Mark Grimmette was named flag bearer for tonight's opening ceremonies, members of the skeleton and bobsled teams took the podium with one common thread: they are a team of talented rookies.

Of the six women that comprise the women's bobsled team, five are first-time Olympians. Only Shauna Rohbock, who won silver at the 2006 Torino Games, has Olympic experience. Michelle Rzepka, Erin Pac, Elana Myers, Bree Schaaf and Emily Azevedo are basking in the enjoyment of being part of the show.

And two skeleton members -- Noelle Pikus-Pace and Zach Lund -- are here for the first time somewhat by default; Pikus-Pace made the 2006 team, but fate intervened when an errant bobsled went off track and broke her leg. Lund, meanwhile, had earned a berth in 2006, but was disqualified for testing positive for a banned substance (Propecia, the hair regrowth drug) just before the opening ceremonies.

Men's skeleton racer John Daly will also be appearing for the first time.

The U.S. team has plenty of former Olympians, but the energy of the afternoon was generated by the first-timers. The common balance, athletes often say, is to respect the Olympics for the achievement it is while remembering they are simply using the same skills that brought them to this point.

But Azevedo and Schaaf were amazed by another element of the bright lights: all the swag the athletes receive.

"We got a lot of stuff," Azevedo said, marveling at the jewelry and Ralph Lauren apparel waiting for her in her room. "It was big, not that I'm complaining." Azevedo even added that at the airport someone came over and carried her bags! What a welcome dose of humility ...

Each group has its own personality, and rivals. The Night Train crew of USA I likes the idea that its' top ranking intimidates opponents, but off the podium, in quieter moments, they know the German team led by Andre Lange awaits them. Rohbock and Rzepka, who will drive women's USA I (both the U.S. men and women will field three bobsled teams) also relish the idea of being expected to win, while the USA II team of Pac and Myers needs to shock the world. Neither the USA I nor II women, however, have any illusions about the strength of the Canadian team.

"I'm ranked sixth," Pac said. "I know I'm an underdog, but I know I can finish in the top three."

Meanwhile, Katie Uehlander, who finished sixth in 2006 and twice won the women's World Cup in 2007 or 2008 before being hampered by a knee injury she suffered snowmobiling last April, showed off a welcome flash of bravado.

"When I'm on my game," she said, "I think I'm unbeatable."

Howard Bryant | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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