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Last Word For U.S. skiing, the long-awaited future has come and gone--now what happens?

Last sunday morning U.S. ski racer Jonna Mendes ripped down the
Wildflower course at Snowbasin and slammed to a stop in the
finish corral, far out of the medal chase (she would place 16th)
in the Super G. The crowd roared its appreciation, and Mendes
blew kisses back. It was a sweet, patriotic scene that has been
repeated endlessly at Olympic Alpine races, an arms-wide embrace
of racers in red-white-and-blue, a thanks for trying so darn hard.

Against this loving backdrop the U.S. ski team has reached a
crossroads. The medal count may yet reach a respectable total
(and beat the bar-set-low goal of three Alpine medals established
by U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association CEO and president Bill
Marolt). The larger picture, though, is more unnerving.

Four years ago the U.S. women's Olympic team coaches sought to
build for the future by taking then 20-year-old Kirsten Clark,
19-year-old Sarah Schleper and Caroline Lalive and Mendes, both
18, to the Nagano Games, largely for the experience, as none of
them were truly ready to compete at a high level. With Salt Lake
looming four years in the distance, the attitude was, Just wait.

In Salt Lake, Clark was 12th in the downhill and 14th in Super
G; Mendes finished 11th in downhill before her 16th in Super G.
Lalive failed to finish either the downhill, combined or Super
G, felled by nerves. "We expected more; the placing is not
good," said U.S. women's head coach Marjan Cernigoj.

Perhaps the problem is partly the expectations created by a home
court Olympics. "This has been on our minds for sooo long," said
Mendes after the Super G. "I really wanted to come out with a
medal. It's devastating."

On the men's side, an injury in January to Chad Fleischer left
Daron Rahlves to carry the U.S. load in downhill and the Super
G. He was spooked when the media descended upon him after a
fast--but meaningless--training run and went on to finish 16th
and eighth, respectively. With no pressure, 21-year-old Marco
Sullivan finished ninth in the downhill, and Thomas Vonn did
likewise in the Super G.

So look ahead: The women's speed program has lost Picabo Street
to retirement. The Nagano Kids may have plateaued. On the
technical (slalom and giant slalom) side, neither Schleper nor
Kristina Koznick finished their first run in yesterday's slalom.
(Both are entered in tomorrow's GS.) Unless Sullivan is the real
deal, the men's speed cabinet is bare. Only the men's technical
ski program, in which Bode Miller has Tom Rothrock, Vonn and
Chip Knight behind him, looks strong for the long term.

Questions must be asked. Such as: Should the emphasis among
women now turn to young skiers like 17-year-old Lindsey Kildow,
who was a shocking sixth in the combined? And will the system
help her advance any better than it did Clark, Lalive and
Mendes? So many times the U.S. skiers who excel are rebels
working either on the edges of the system or outside it
altogether. Think Phil and Steve Mahre, Tommy Moe, Street,
Miller. Koznick left the U.S. program two years ago.

It's a huge challenge, training individual athletes in a team
environment and racing countries like Austria and Germany. It
takes work and creativity. Cernigoj said it best: "We've got to
take a look at everything we've done." --Tim Layden

COLOR PHOTO: LEONHARD FOEGER/REUTERS Like the shell-shocked Lalive, the U.S. ski team will leave Salt Lake with questions to answer.