SALT LAKE CITY - The Austrians are to skiing what Duke is to college basketball.
So, Stephan Eberharter may be favored to win the downhill gold, but American Daron Rahlves has his own ideas about the steep, twisting course called Grizzly.
"I've got a good feeling on the hill," he said. "I've gotten good results. The toughest thing about Grizzly is it changes with every turn. It's technical, with lots of banked turns, and really steep."
Rahlves' event is just part of the outdoor action today, when ski jumper Alan Alborn soars above Utah Olympic Park and snowboarder Shannon Dunn zips across the halfpipe. Other events include men's singles luge and Nordic combined.
If Rahlves does manage to beat the mighty Austrians, it won't be the first time. That's what he did to win last year's super-G world title.
Even without injured teammate Hermann Maier, the Austrians are expected to dominate skiing's speed events. Though Eberharter is also favored for gold in the super-G, Rahlves isn't conceding anything.
"Both races, the super-G and downhill, are great races for me on that kind of hill," he said.
Snowbasin's Grizzly course is indeed a bear and was named for one that roamed the area 80 years ago.
With its slanting sidehills, twisting turns and elevator-shaft drops, it's a dramatic change from previous Olympic downhill courses that favored gliders at earlier games.
Racers plunge from the starting hut, reaching 75 mph within 10 seconds, then twist through long jumps and sidehill turns before making a heart-stopping drop on a 74-percent pitch into the finish area.
There's a 2,897-foot difference in elevation over 1.94 miles, a thrill ride that lasts about 100 seconds.
"It's exciting the whole way down," said Rahlves, a speed addict who also rides motorcycles. "There's never a lull, never a time you can just relax. You're thinking ahead every single turn and looking ahead the whole way down."
Ski-jumping's qualifying rounds on the 90-meter hill were canceled Friday by high winds and blowing snow. The jumpers didn't mind.
"A gust could come up and either blow you to a huge jump or splat you right down," said American Brian Welch.
Last month, Alborn became the first U.S. jumper in 10 years with three Top 10 finishes in World Cup events. He's a longshot to medal, though, behind favorites Adam Malysz of Poland and Sven Hannawald of Germany.
Dunn won a bronze medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and won the halfpipe at last year's X-Games. Teammates Kelly Clark and Tricia Byrnes also give the USA a good shot at a medal.
Todd Lodwick and Bill Demong leaped steady and long in the ski-jumping portion of Nordic combined, surprising the dominant Europeans by both finishing in the top 10.
"Anything is possible tomorrow," said Lodwick, who enters today's cross-country portion in seventh, one spot ahead of Demong. "It takes years to get your technique down. You're looking at a more mature, more focused, more athletic group of individuals than we were four years ago. We have expectations."
They've already exceeded them in a sport Americans have traditionally struggled in. The highest Olympic finish by a U.S. athlete is ninth, in 1932 by Rolf Monsen.
"Every single person out there is afraid of the USA right now," said coach Jan-Erik Aalbu, who guided the Norwegians at the 1994 and 1998 Olympics. "Four or five years ago, it was not that way."
The United States also has never medaled in men's singles luge. That's largely because of a fellow named Georg Hackl. And that's who Adam Heidt and Tony Benshoof face today - the three-time Olympic champion from Germany.
Then there's Italy's Armin Zoeggeler, a three-time world champ and two-time Olympic medalist.
"There's no doubt those two are the best sliders in the world, but the field is very deep and shouldn't be forgotten," said Benshoof, who won a World Cup silver medal last month.
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