The Americans are here: US Olympians set up house in Salt Lake

Wednesday, February 6th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ Enjoying the home field advantage for the first time in 22 years and eager to exploit it, America's Winter Olympians arrived in Utah intent on a record-setting medals haul.

``It's nothing but advantageous for us to be here because of the hometown support,'' U.S. speedskater Casey FitzRandolph said Tuesday as the Americans settled in. ``We don't get that opportunity very often, and we've got to take advantage of it while we can.''

From veteran skier Picabo Street to Olympic neophyte short-track skater Apolo Ohno, Americans optimistically assessed their medal chances as the United States set its sights on as many as 20 medals _ seven more than the previous winter high.

The Americans won 13 medals in each of the last two Winter Games.

``I've got as good a chance as anybody at taking the gold,'' said Street, 30, a two-time medalist and Utah resident. ``It's in my backyard, I'm comfortable. I couldn't ask for anything more.''

Speedskater Chris Witty, herself a double medalist in Nagano four years ago, felt the same way about her squad: ``I expect this is going to be one of the best Olympics ever for the U.S. speedskaters. We could win four or five medals, I think.''

The Salt Lake City Games mark the first winter Olympics in the United States since the 1980 games in Lake Placid, New York, when the American hockey team pulled off its gold-medal winning ``Miracle on Ice'' and the U.S. team claimed a dozen medals.

Back then, Ohno _ a 19-year-old who could take as many as four gold medals in short track, a sport most often compared to roller derby _ wasn't even born yet.

Last week, he made the cover of Sports Illustrated; last month, he was cleared of charges that he fixed a qualifying race to help a friend make the U.S. team.

``I'm going in to do my thing, regardless of what's happening around me,'' promised Ohno, sporting a smile, a blue bandanna and a wisp of a beard on his chin. Earlier, he wore a powder blue uniform as the American flag was raised in Olympic Village.

About 60 U.S. athletes participated in that 20-minute ceremony, featuring songs by a high school choir, the raising of the Stars and Stripes and a Native American dance ceremony. The United States has 211 athletes entered in the Olympics.

``People kept asking me last week in Colorado Springs if I was excited about the Olympics,'' figure skater Tim Goebel said afterward. ``I told them no, because it was just training. But now it feels more real to me.''

While 20 remains the target, U.S. officials said it won't be a disappointment if their medal count falls short of that figure.

``It's a goal, and one that's not easily achieved at the Olympics,'' said U.S. team leader Dwight Bell. ``If we win 18 medals, are we going to be disappointed? No.''

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, Street said, the American athletes can provide the nation with something to rally around. The skier said that was one of the reasons she was seeking a medal for a third straight Olympics after recovering from severe injuries to both legs.

``How many people in America need this right now, need this healing?'' she asked. ``And I can give it to them.''

Another defending medalist, gold medal moguls skier Jonny Moseley, arrived in Salt Lake City with a brand new move: the Dinner Roll.

It features Moseley flying off a mogul and rotating twice, with his body parallel to the ground. Although the move was banned as dangerous on the World Cup tour, Moseley successfully petitioned Olympic officials to allow it here.

``The idea is to do something new, not something old,'' Moseley said. ``I'm always looking for something that will invigorate me.''