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TORINO: Freestyle: Women moguls skiers get ready to roll

TORINO: Freestyle: Women moguls skiers get ready to rollIf you’re going to pick your horse in the women’s moguls competition, you better do it quickly.

The women moguls skiers will waste little time in Torino, kicking things off with qualifying action during the day on Saturday, Feb. 11, and wrapping up the finals later that night in prime time, under the lights at Sauze d’Oulx. While the progression of the airs in the sport – the moguls skiers will showcase inverted tricks for the first time in Olympic history – means the female athletes walk a finer line between glory and disaster than in years past (i.e. we’ll see a lot more than the twister spreads of Donna Weinbrecht lore), there is still a relatively short list of women likely to walk away with gold.

That list begins with distinguished veteran and defending Olympic champ Kari Traa of Norway. The 32-year-old has seen just about everything in the sport in her 15 years skiing moguls, including the move from upright maneuvers to flips and off-axis tricks. “It’s hard to learn those tricks when you’re 28 and you’ve never done any gymnastics before’ Traa told NBC. ‘I don’t know if I’m upside down sometimes.”

Still, the Norwegian has kept up at every turn, adapting her air and relying on her strength, the turns, to reel in high scores (turns still count for 50 percent of the scoring). Traa’s won three times this year, including the last competition before the Games, held Feb. 4 at Spindleruv Mlyn, Czech Republic. She’s said she plans to hang them up after this season to pursue other interests, such as the clothing line she founded with friends, but has every intention of going out on top.

The most likely skier to ruin Traa’s going-away party is Jennifer Heil. The rock-steady Canadian won the World Cup title last year, and leads again this year. Another strong turner, Heil rarely makes mistakes, as indicated by her six podiums this season. After finishing fourth at the Salt Lake Games, Heil would like to cement her status as the best female bumps skier in the world with a gold.

The only other athletes to win on the World Cup tour this year – Hannah Kearney and Michelle Roark – are both American, but their careers sit in very different places. Roark, a nine-year veteran of the U.S. team, is a study in perseverance. She won on the World Cup in ’99, but then injuries slowed her, her results lagged and she spent years in the shadows of other prominent American skiers. She didn’t qualify for the Games in 2002, but dedicated herself to qualifying this year, and came out firing. Two wins in Deer Valley and a third in Spindleruv Mlyn later, Roark enters the Games as one of the favorites at the tender age of 31.

Kearney, on the other hand, is still a teenager and a rising, albeit inconsistent, star. The defending world champion, Kearney won the World Cup season opener and the U.S. Olympic trials in December, but the rest of her season has been a roller coaster, with results ranging from second to 31st. ‘This is my first Olympic Games, so I guess you could say there aren’t really any expectations, but that’s sort of a lie’ said Kearney. ‘I’m here to do well, I’m not here to lose. It’s the same competitors you see week after week after week.’

And what about the wild cards? With the more difficult airs expected to yield more mistakes and crashes, an underdog could very well sneak onto the podium. It could be American Shannon Bahrke. The 2003 World Cup champion is still regaining her confidence after injuries sidelined her last year, but she has the talent to deliver. ‘I’ve been injured the last year and a half, so this is a new experience’ Bahrke said. ‘I still can’t believe I’m back again. It’s going to be a great Games.’

Canadians Stephanie St. Pierre and Kristi Richards could threaten, as could Swede Sara Kjellin, Czech Nikola Sudova and American Jillian Vogtli.

The gates open Saturday, so place your bets, and don’t be late; it’s bound to be a good race.

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