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Inside Olympics

Money in the Bank
Out of debt and living the good life, slalom skier Erik Schlopy
is a U.S. medal threat

Erik Schlopy was living the life of the ski star last Saturday
in Aspen. He went to physiotherapy to get the kinks out, giving
his ski sponsor's serviceman time to wax his skis and clean his
boots. Later he signed posters bearing his likeness before
returning to the lodging the U.S. ski team had provided him: a
large room with a kitchen, stereo and fireplace. The first time
he saw his digs, says Schlopy, 29, "I was sure I'd walked into
the wrong place. Things used to be a lot different."

After a season in which he placed third in the World Cup
standings in giant slalom--the best finish by a U.S. man in that
discipline in 18 years--Schlopy, the team's best technical and
least conventional racer, has earned such pampering. This season
he has won two slaloms, at Nor Am races in Loveland, Colo., on
Nov. 15 and 16.

Growing up near Buffalo (and later in Stowe, Vt.), Schlopy was
skiing when he was 18 months old and on the national team at 18
years old. He won U.S. titles in giant slalom and Super G at 19.
At the 1993 worlds in Japan, Schlopy, an inexperienced
downhiller, had a horrific crash in downhill training,
puncturing a lung and suffering fractures in his back, ribs and
sternum. He came back to make the '94 Olympic team, but after
feeling increasingly unhappy with U.S. ski team officials, he
left the team in '95 to join the World Pro Ski Tour, a rebel
circuit that featured head-to-head races on short courses with
seven-foot jumps.

"They called it the Roach Motel of the ski world," says Schlopy,
who had to take care of his own lodging, transportation and
equipment. He won a world pro title in 1996-97 but grossed less
than $100,000 in three years on the circuit and spent it all on
expenses. In the winter of 1997-98 he slept in a closet at a
condo in Waterville Valley, N.H., that he shared with eight
Swedish racers.

That year Schlopy joined forces with Dean Nicholas, a
68-year-old Romanian-born engineer turned counselor who had
worked with other athletes. Nicholas became a second father to
Schlopy, giving him what Nicholas describes as "a road map for
his life." Nicholas prescribed a diet rich in soy, coaxed
Schlopy into becoming an optimist and altered his balance on
skis until, Nicholas says, "Erik could fall in love with his
toes inside his boots."

Schlopy requalified for the U.S. team in '98 but was ranked so
low that in World Cup races he skied with the also-rans on snow
that earlier competitors had reduced to icy ruts. He was $30,000
in debt. At Apex Mountain in British Columbia in January '99, he
left his $30-a-night hotel to go for a jog, spotted a motel en
route with $19 rooms and promptly moved to the cheaper place.

On the snow, though, Schlopy's improvement was significant. "His
touch on the snow, his transitions between turns--he doesn't
lose anything from one rut to the next," says U.S. teammate Bode
Miller. "He does it with such fluidity."

Respect from top skiers came grudgingly. "When we trained with
the Austrians," says Schlopy, "I would see [two-time Olympic
champion] Hermann Maier, but he wouldn't see me." By the time
Schlopy placed fourth in a World Cup giant slalom in Park City,
Utah, a year ago, Maier had taken notice. "Maybe we have to stop
training together," Maier said after the race. "His time comes."

Since then Schlopy has hired an agent, made more than $150,000,
gotten out of debt and become engaged to Nnenna Lynch, a former
Rhodes scholar who ran for the U.S. at the world cross-country
championships from 1996 to '98. The wedding will be sometime
after the Olympics, at which Schlopy will be a threat to win a
medal in slalom and giant slalom. The honeymoon spot should be a
nice upgrade from the Roach Motel.

Sarah Hughes Shines
Last Skater Standing

With precision rarely seen even in figure skating, the U.S.
ladies' singles team, the most talented in the world, has taken
an early-season synchronized tumble. Michelle Kwan has looked
clueless while going coachless. (She and Frank Carroll split in
October after nearly 10 years together.) Sasha Cohen landed only
two jumps in her first long program, at Skate America in
Colorado Springs in October. And Angela Nikodinov lost her
longtime coach to cancer on Nov. 12. Only 16-year-old Sarah
Hughes, the world bronze medalist last spring, behind Kwan and
Russia's Irina Slutskaya, seems better off than she was at the
start of the season.

Hughes placed second to Kwan (and outskated her, in the eyes of
many skating observers) at Skate America, beat Kwan and
Slutskaya at Skate Canada in early November, and won the long
program in placing second at the Lalique Trophy in Paris two
weeks later. Hughes has two strong triple-triple combinations in
her long program, and she's following the mantra of her coach,
Robin Wagner, to "draw the audience in" by showing more emotion.

"She's become very musical and lyrical," says Dick Button, the
skating guru and two-time gold medalist. "I like her spirals.
She has a layback spin that doesn't stop. She's a complete

This summer Hughes practiced a triple Axel in a harness before
she and Wagner decided it was neither consistent enough nor
necessary for a program that was already technically robust. In
this season's splat-filled climate, a safe strategy is a sound
one for a contender whose stock is rising.

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY During the last World Cup season Schlopy established himself as the U.S. team's best technical racer.