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Hitting slopes — sans snow

Women skiers take a few steps closer to 2002

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SNOWBASIN — Picabo Street planted a foot — and a ski pole — Friday on what she hopes will be her stomping grounds come the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics.

And it didn't stop with just one step, as Street joined her United States women's ski team peers in going up the downhill — hiking the steep terrain at Snowbasin Ski Area that will be the Olympic women's downhill course for the 2002 Games.

Using ski poles as she hiked and accompanied by her pit bull Pele (named for a volcano goddess), Street lagged well behind the group of speed-event skiers, coaches and trainers. Who could blame the two-time Olympic medalist, who just a month after winning the super-G gold at the 1998 Nagano Games shattered her left leg and blew out her right knee in a freak racing accident?

It's only been about a year since she ditched her crutches, about a half-year since taking to the slopes on her skis and only a couple of months since resuming full-time ski training.

But her deliberate pace had an additional purpose. "I'm sure she's taking her time going up the hill, learning all the angles and turns," said U.S. ski team physiologist Sue Robson. "She's a professional."

Looking, interpreting and remembering is what Street was doing all the way up the Snowbasin run labeled "Wildflower," a course designed by 1972 men's downhill gold medalist Bernard Russi, who also crafted Olympic courses in Albertville, Lillehammer and Nagano.

"Today was basically feeling the energy of the hill," said Street, who said she fell short of a complete "spiritual bonding" with the Snowboard course during Friday's hike.

"That's hard to get without the snow, since the elements are much different," she added, explaining that she's enthralled with the prospective flow of the future Olympic downhill run.

Many team members have skied and raced previously at Snowbasin — some as recently as the 1998 U.S. National Championships. But the women's downhill course and its men's downhill counterpart are newly developed runs on John Paul Mountain.

While the women's run was ready for racing earlier this year, delays in having the snowmaking equipment operational and a relatively light snow year resulted in an inadequate base for the women's World Cup races scheduled last February at Snowbasin. What was expected to be an unveiling of the Wildflower course and a major international test event for SLOC officials ended up being rescheduled at sites outside of the United States.

U.S. women's coach Marjan Cernigoj admitted being disappointed with not having his team race on the course earlier this year. "But then again, it didn't give the Europeans a chance to come over," he said. "It should be a homecourt advantage for us."

Cernigoj brought his skiers to Snowbasin as an early part of a three-week dry-land training camp based at Park City. The hiking provided a physical workout while allowing the women to become familiar with the terrain and acquainted with the Snowbasin mountain-operation staff that is grooming the grounds where the Olympic downhill and super-G races will be run in 2002.

The U.S. women's ski team continues its camp based in Park City, with Robson doubling as camp director for summer-session training. Trampoline and gymnastic drills are designed to help the downhill racers improve their agility and air awareness, whether it be jumping off a drop at speeds of 70 to 80 mph or catching an edge and trying to recenter their balance. Other sessions range from cardiac exercises and tolerance-enhancement activities to yoga exercises designed especially for body rehab and body control.

Once their Park City camp is completed, the women's team will head off to Chile for a week of on-snow training in the Andes, followed by another week of dry-camp events in San Diego. Then it's off to a wind tunnel back East and working with a NASA scientist to learn techniques of aerodynamics and streamlining, followed by a week in the Austrian mountains to practice their learned skills.

E-mail: taylor@desnews.com