AND THE WINNER IS… by Nikki Stone The Salt Lake City Olympics will be the third winter Olympiad awarding medals for the sport of Freestyle Aerial Skiing. Having won both the women‟s and men‟s Gold medals in 1998, the Americans certainly face a challenge to live up to expectations. But this U.S. team is definitely up to the challenge! Not only do the American‟s have individual performers and leaders, but they also have a great deal of depth. On the men‟s side, you will see Eric “Bergie” Bergoust leading the American charge. Eric, who you may see on several nationally televised commercials, has accumulated a stack of awards and titles. Bergoust earned more top three finishes in the last 4 years than the majority of skiers receive in a lifetime. Not only did Bergie win the „98 Olympic Gold Medal, but he also won the 1999 World Championship, was the 2001 World Cup Champion, and holds the three highest aerial world record scores. Going into these Games ranked number one in the World, Bergie will be the hands-down favorite. Eric has already proven that he can perform under pressure. He will be performing the same two tricks that he performed 4 years ago in Nagano. Being the master innovator, Bergie is continually working on various techniques to perfect his jumps. Most the aerialist feel that Eric has done more for the sport than any ten men. Many of the competitors have incorporated his techniques and will be challenging him with them. Bergoust‟s biggest competition may come from his own American teammates. Joe Pack, Brian Currutt, and Jeret Peterson have all had top-five finishes this season. Pack, Currutt, and Peterson will also all be performing quadruple-twisting triple back flips, and with good landings, they have the potential of pushing Bergoust off the top spot on the Olympic podium. As this will be a first-time Olympic experience for all three gentlemen, it‟ll be interesting to see if the additional support of all the American fans can outweigh the added Olympic nerves these athletes will endure. There will certainly be several foreigners that I believe could topple the U.S. domination. The “Canadian Air Force” has always been dominant in the sport of aerials. Expect to see athletes like Nicholas Fontaine, Jeff Bean, and Kyle Nissan making standout performances. And the aerial talent can also be seen over seas as well. Belarus‟ Alexei Grichin (currently ranked 2nd in the World) and Dmitri Dashinski (1998 Olympic Bronze medalist) will also attempt some of the most technically difficult jumps and could potentially stand atop the Olympic Podium. But the biggest excitement of the event may come from the Czech Republic‟s Ales Valenta, who is currently ranked third in the world. Valenta plans on performing a QUINT-twisting triple back flip. Currently, he is the only aerialist to ever execute this trick on snow. Valenta faces the dilemma of playing it safe, and almost certainly being assured of a medal, or risking it all on the most difficult jump likely to be attempted. On the women‟s side, the field is wide open, as it seems that there is a different woman winning World Cup competitions every week. America‟s Tracy Evans has a great chance to achieve her first international podium, as she will be one of only a few female athletes who will be performing triple somersaults. The biggest question for the women will be: will their courage in attempting high degree-of-difficulty jumps (the harder jumps) pay off? In my opinion, it will. The women performing the triple-twisting double back flips and the twisting-triple back flips will have a distinct advantage. Evans‟ main competition will come from her own teammate, Brenda Petzold, and a variety of foreign athletes. Again, the athletes from Belarus and Canada are quite strong. Belarus‟ Alla Tsuper enters the Games ranked number one in the world. And Canada‟s Deidra Dionne, Veronika Bauer, and Veronica Brenner all finished the World Cup season with top five rankings. Also, the Chinese can never be counted out. The Chinese women are not usually competitive on the World Cup circuit, but they always seem to pull out some surprises at the Olympic Games. The Chinese typically push a number of their girls to perform new tricks with a high degree-of-difficulty in the hope that one of them will land the trick and a spot atop the Olympic podium. It doesn‟t seem to faze their coaches that 4 or 5 of the other girls are taken away in stretchers. The greatest disappointment of the aerial competition is that Australia‟s 29-year-old Jacqui Cooper was forced to pull out of the Games after a horrific accident. Jacqui was attempting a twisting triple somersault and tore the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in her left knee on an awkward landing. Cooper was Australia's best hope to win its first ever Winter Games gold. The reason that I find her accident so disappointing is that Jacqui has always been a gutsy woman and has helped push the women‟s sports further. Cooper would have been competing with the highest degree-of-difficulty for the women‟s field. In 1998, I received a bouquet of flowers from the 1994 Women‟s aerial gold medalist, Uzbekistan‟s Lina Tcherjazova. Lina, like no one else, understood exactly how I felt. I look forward to sharing a bouquet of flowers and an incredible emotional experience with this year‟s new Olympic champion.