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Next generation of American racers eye S.L.

America's next generation of ski racers stood together in a raging snowstorm in the Japan Alps and looked ahead to Utah's Wasatch Range.

In four years, those mountains near Salt Lake City will be the site of the Winter Olympics, and Caroline LaLive, Jonna Mendes, Alex Shaffer and Kirsten Clark are hoping it will be their turn to win medals.On Tuesday, Germany swept the medals in the women's Alpine combined, with downhill champion Katja Seizinger capturing a second gold in the event made up of a downhill and two runs of slalom. Martina Ertl and Hilde Gerg completed the German triple.

LaLive and her teammates watched their wild celebration and daydreamed about 2002.

"We thought how awesome it would be for three Americans to be up there doing the same thing," said LaLive, 18, whose seventh was best among the Americans in the combined. "I think it's not at all out of our reach by any means."

Shaffer, who was seventh in the slalom, placed ninth overall, and Mendes was 14th of the 21 finishers.

The Germans are 25, 24 and 22, respectively, old vets compared to the American kids. LaLive and Mendes are 18, Clark is 20 and Shaffer just turned 22.

The Germans "are kind of an inspiration because as you see they're always together at the top in each discipline. . . . They stick together and they work together," Shaffer said.

"That's how we have built our team. Everyone on our team, we have worked together really well and push each other. When someone's down and out, people help them up, and when you're high on life, we're enjoying it together."

"We're a young team," Mendes said. "We have tons of years to get that accomplished. We can do it."

LaLive and Mendes, who grew up together in the Lake Tahoe area of California, are still so young that they head from the Olympics to Poland for the World Junior Championships. In racing against other skiers aged 18 and under, they likely will be facing athletes who will be their main competition at Salt Lake City.

The Americans have only positive memories of Japan.

"I don't think it could have been anywhere else that I could have had such a special time," Mendes said. "The Japanese are just so incredibly friendly. When we're traveling in Europe on the World Cup circuit, sometime we'll come through the finish and they'll be silent because they don't exactly love the Americans. But here in Japan they love everybody."

For LaLive, it's been "an awesome opportunity."

"It hasn't really felt like the Olympics in the sense of an extreme amount of nervousness or all the hype, I think mostly because the people here in Japan are pretty calm," she said.

"So I don't think there's been as much hype as I dreamed about when I was younger. That's maybe better for my first time, not being as nervous, so I was pretty calm and not too stressed out."

Things will be different in four years, though.

"I hope so," LaLive said. "It's America and, man, it's a hometown crowd; we'd better get some hype."