Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Local athletes harbor Olympic dreams

Six still have a shot at Torino games


By MICHAEL AMES
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When it comes to producing outstanding athletes, mountain communities are like petri dishes: Ideal conditions help spawn generation after generation of elite competitors. The Wood River Valley is a small but concentrated colony, and over the years it has produced a disproportionate number of superlative competitors. In our shallow census pool, athletic talent runs deep.

With less than five weeks to go before the opening of the 20th Winter Games in Torino, Italy, a group of local athletes is tenaciously holding on to Olympic dreams. For some, the weeks ahead present doors of opportunity, open just a crack. For others, the challenge will simply be maintaining a high level of performance through the trials of injuries and winter illnesses.

As the Torino games near, fingers are crossed and rabbits feet are rubbed as our valley pulls for its best Olympic hopefuls:

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Graham Watanabe, 23

5'5", 150 pounds

Boardercross

U.S. Snowboard Team

Time gets tight for clutch rider

This former Sun Valley Snowboard Team alpine racer always seems to find a way to surprise and succeed. Sticking with alpine racing in the years when freestyle riders gained far more attention, Watanabe's determination paid off when he discovered the fledgling sport of boardercross (or boarderX).

Throwing five racers into a manmade roller-coaster course of berms, jumps and drops, boardercross is the Frankenstein of alpine sports, merging elements of giant slalom racing, luge and roller derby.

After winning a boardercross World Cup in early 2004, Watanabe was named to the U.S. Snowboard A-Team. This season, he trained with the team, but narrowly missed the nod for World Cup starts.

With two major wins in the past month though—the Jeep King of the Mountain race on Dec. 4 in Crested Butte, Colo., and the Mt. Hood, Ore., boardercross grand prix on Dec. 18—Watanabe is on fire, finally earning himself starting spots at World Cups in Austria and Italy.

Watanabe's first challenge came at Austria's Bad Gastein World Cup on Jan. 4. He advanced as far as the quarterfinals and finished 11th. From Austria, he traveled to Kronplatz, Italy, for a race tomorrow, Jan. 12, that could be his last shot at Torino.

This racer has a history of turning in his best performances under the most pressure. On his recent streak, Watanabe has had a gleam in his eye.

"I feel good. I'm really fired up because I'll be racing. I've got a lot of energy and a lot of motivation," he said.

Asked what he is thinking about as Olympic chances near, Watanabe has a simple vision: "Go fast. Have fun."

At the end of the month, Watanabe will return stateside for the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colo.

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Aprilia Hagglof, 22

Alpine Snowboard Racing

Team Sweden

Alpine racer is a snug fit on Swedish team

When Aprilia Hagglof was named to the Swedish Olympic Team in June 2005, the 22-year-old became the first Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation racer to officially earn a spot at the 2006 Games.

After graduating from Wood River High School in 2001 and racing for Sun Valley, Hagglof returned to her native Sweden to join the Swedish National Snowboard Team.

Of the 22 athletes announced by Team Sweden over the summer, Hagglof was one of nine first-time Olympians.

Although her hopes are high for a medal in Torino, she has not been wearing Olympic blinders.

"I hope to have the mindset that the Olympics is technically just the same as any other race," she said in July. "I'm racing against the same people with the same format as any other World Cup. With that state of mind, I have no doubt that I can (reach the) podium."

Hagglof will be racing in the women's parallel giant slalom snowboard race on Feb. 23 at Bardonnechia, Italy.

She has considerable momentum for Torino. Last March, she won her first World Cup race in a parallel slalom at Sierra Nevada, Spain, and last week in a Bad Gastein, Austria, World Cup race, she finished fourth and rose to an overall World Cup ranking of 21.

Though she will race for Sweden at the Olympics, Hagglof says that Idaho is never far from her mind. "Growing up in Sun Valley has everything to do with where I am today," she said.

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Kai Robrahn, 31

6'0", 165 pounds

Boardercross

Team Australia

Aussie's knee could determine his chances

With just over two years racing experience under his belt, Kai Robrahn, 31, is a late boardercross bloomer. With such scant experience, he has been a bit of a Cinderella story.

Robrahn, a product of Hemingway Elementary School and Wood River High School (class of 1993), coached for the Sun Valley Snowboard Team for seven years before actually committing himself to boardercross competition in 2003.

In 2004, Robrahn and brother Taan Robrahn joined the Australian National Snowboard Team. As their parents, Dave and L'Raine Robrahn, of Ketchum, are Australian citizens, the Robrahn boys both earned dual U.S.-Australian status. Since joining the National Snowboarding Team Down Under, both have been consistently ranked among the top 10 riders in the country. Kai's Olympic chances remain high.

"You know how Aussies are, they'll give anything a go," Robrahn said. "We are into those things that give you a bit of excitement. Boardercross is one of those things."

With this nationalistic predilection for speed, Robrahn had been achieving outstanding boardercross success before an Oct. 21 knee injury (torn anterior cruciate ligament, bruised tibia, torn meniscus) in Switzerland sidelined him for the past two months. "I thought I was done for the season," he said.

After the crash, Robrahn had arthroscopic surgery, smartly sat out a World Cup race in Whistler, British Columbia, and has been resolutely hitting the gym to rehabilitate his leg.

With the benefit of recent and focused physical therapy, he was healthy enough to get back on the board and have a few runs on Baldy over the holiday break.

"I don't know if I could have done it without the support of John Koth and Karoline Droege," he said, giving ample credit to his Ketchum-based physical therapists.

In the World Cup starts in Europe—where he could face Watanabe—Robrahn will need to reassert his Australian dominance to secure an Olympic spot.

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Elitsa Storey, 18

5'4", 120 pounds

Alpine Ski Racing

U.S. Disabled Ski Team

2006 finally arrives for versatile racer

At 18 years old, Storey is the youngest member of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team and also Sun Valley's surest bet for the Olympics.

In 2005, Storey won bronze in four events (downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom) at the U.S. Disabled Junior Nationals. She feels it was an underachievement, though, and is positive for upcoming Olympic qualifiers.

"My chances are pretty good," she said in late December.

Storey was born with congenital birth defects that led to the amputation of her right leg when she was 6 years old. A year after the traumatic operation, she began the sport that could take her to the 2006 Winter Games. For the past 11 years she has accomplished on one leg what few people achieve on two.

"I was influenced by my family," she said, noting an athletic clan of skiers including twin brothers Hunter and Slater, 20, and kid sister Sloan, all of whom have been Sun Valley Ski Team members.

About Torino, Storey said "2006 has always been on my mind. I've been dreaming about this my whole life. I can't believe 2006 is already here."

Although Storey is the youngest member of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team, she is getting ample opportunity to assimilate to the rigors and anxiety of international competition.

Earlier this winter, she finished fourth at Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge, Colo., and competed in Disabled World Cups in Kimberly, Canada, and Steamboat Springs, Colo. In December, she competed in a Europa Cup race in Austria and found herself "more comfortable just being around the same group of people racing on the World Cup circuit."

In the coming weeks, Storey will compete at the Huntsman Cup in Park City, Utah, and a World Cup in Korea.

"Last year, the World Cup got to my head -- but I'm excited for Korea," Storey said.

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Brooke Hovey, 33

5'8", 136 pounds

Nordic skiing

Team Rossignol

Ketchum "krud" hobbled Hovey's early season

Like many women in this valley, Brooke Hovey got her start on Nordic skis through her friendship with Muffy Ritz. In the winter of 1996-97, Ritz needed some extra coaches for her VAMPS program and knew Hovey (Brooke Baughman at the time) was a fit runner whose endurance talents would be a natural fit in Nordic skiing.

Nine years later, Hovey is among the top 10 female Nordic skiers in the country. Last winter was her breakout season; her ranking surged from 35th at the start of the season to 12th by spring.

Before Whistler, Hovey had 12 straight top 10 finishes, including two wins in the past nine months.

Early this winter, Hovey broke into the top 10 and at a recent World Cup in Whistler, she finished third among American women despite being held back by a disabling cold.

"It was a survival race," Hovey said of pushing herself through the mire of the dreaded "Ketchum Krud" illness. "You get a cold and it just thrashes you."

Although she originally used her fitness to excel in marathon Nordic races, her technique and endurance have meshed in recent years and as she looks towards Torino, Hovey is specializing in 1-kilometer sprint races.

With a background as a collegiate runner, the sprint was a natural fit. She also enjoys the frenzy of the 1K race.

"The 1K is like skiercross on Nordic skis," she said. Poles are often broken as racers vie to get a lead on one another. "If there's an interesting turn, people are throwing elbows around."

Hovey raced in Soldier Hollow, Utah last week, placing 10th in the 15 kilometer, 6th in the 1.3 kilometer sprint, and 13th in the 5 kilometer race.

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Chris Cook, 24

5'11", 175 pounds

Nordic skiing

SVSEF Olympic Development Team

Recruit gives Sun Valley Nordic its best chance

Originally from Rhinelander, Wisconsin, Chris Cook moved to Sun Valley last summer to join the Sun Valley Nordic Olympic Development Team. Prior to the move, he skied with the U.S. National Development Team, specializing in short distance sprints.

After funding for the U.S. Team was cut, though, Cook became a sort of free agent, said Sun Valley Nordic coach Chris Grover. It was good timing for both the athlete and the program.

"We were working on establishing a better collegiate-age development team," Grover said.

Grover thinks that Cook's Olympic chances are "very great" and noted a recent international World Cup race in which Cook notched the third fastest U.S. result ever recorded in international sprinting.

Grover spent last week at Soldier Hollow, site of the 2002 Olympic Games, where he won the 1.3 kilometer sprint and placed 20th in the 10 kilometer race.




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