TORINO: Freestyle: Can Bloom deliver in the moguls spotlight?Jeremy Bloom wouldn’t let us down, would he? One of the preordained stars of the Olympics, Bloom is hoping to fair better than fellow medal favorites and American media darlings Apolo Anton Ohno, Michelle Kwan and Bode Miller when he takes to the hill Wednesday, Feb. 15, for the men’s freestyle moguls qualifying, followed by the finals later that night.

Much like those who prematurely handed the gold to Ohno and Miller in their first competitions (Kwan had to pull out with an injury and never even got to compete), those who think Bloom is a lock to win must not follow the sport all that closely. A dominant force last year he won six straight World Cups at one point and cruised to the overall title Bloom hasn’t won an event this year, and has reached the podium only once. Toby Dawson, not Bloom, has been the best American. And if the typical Olympic hype and expectations aren’t enough distraction, he’s been fielding as many questions about the NFL draft as he has about the Sauz d’Oulx Olympic venue.

However, no one doubts that Bloom has the talent, is cool under pressure and as capable of focusing on a big event as athletes come. In the event that would guarantee an Olympic berth, the ’03 world champion won the U.S. Olympic trials in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in December.

Bloom took a break before the Olympics, skipping the final World Cup to travel through Europe. ‘It was a few weeks away from everything Olympics’ he said. ‘It was great for me to get away, relax, get ready for this event.’

‘This event’ is moguls skiers’ one shot at Olympic glory, and poised to burst Bloom’s bubble is Australia’s Dale Begg-Smith. The hottest skier on tour, Begg-Smith has flown under the radar, despite four wins and six podiums this season, as well as a sizable lead in the overall standings. Hailing from Vancouver, British Columbia, Begg-Smith grew up skiing in the Canadian system, but grew frustrated with the development team and quit the sport at 15. When he met a longtime Canadian coach who had left for the Australian team, Begg-Smith returned to the sport, got duel citizenship and began competing for Australia in 2003-04. Now, despite his smooth skiing and flashy tastes (he reportedly drives a $300,000 Lamborghini when in Vancouver), the guarded and private Begg-Smith is the favorite for gold no one’s heard of.

The Canadians lost Begg-Smith, but they may not need him. Eighteen-year-old Alexandre Bilodeau is second in the standings, and has notched two wins this season, including the last World Cup in Spindleruv Mlyn, Czech Republic, before the Olympics. He said his win in Spindleruv Mlyn ‘put him on the map’ for the Olympics, but he still considers Bloom and Begg-Smith the favorites.

A former aerialist, Bilodeau is thrilling in the air, and keeps progressing on the turns. Expected to be a factor at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, he could arrive on the scene much sooner than that.

As usual, the Finns are strong, with at least three of them capable of ascending the podium. Veteran Janne Lahtela leads the way, just as he has for the last four Olympics. The 2002 gold medalist is getting up in years (31) and his body has seen a lot of mileage, but he’s still smooth and steady. Lahtela’s cousin, Sami Mustonen, has been the most consistent Finn, boasting three podium finishes, including back-to-back seconds leading into the Games. Tapio Luusua won early in the year at Tignes, but has struggled with his consistency.

Which leaves the Americans. Expected to be an unstoppable juggernaut after putting five in the top seven of the standings last year, the U.S. team has been slower out of the gate this season. The only skier with a win is Dawson, who is fourth in the standings, and probably the safest bet for a U.S. medal. Travis Cabral has been steady, but has yet to reach the podium, although he is capable. 2002 silver medalist Travis Mayer had a second and a fourth before injuring his knee in a January Lake Placid World Cup. Mayer, who is reportedly dating Australian aerialist Alisa Camplin, is expected to be healthy for the big event, but hasn’t competed for nearly a month.

With huge, difficult airs and only one run to qualify, and one run in finals, moguls is a sport with a miniscule margin for error (ask Hannah Kearney).

So will Bloom deliver on the big stage like Shaun White, or be left saying, ‘Oh no!’ like Ohno? Will Begg-Smith finally get his due? Can Dawson pull off a minor upset? Tune in Wednesday to find out.

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Feb 14 2006
Feb 14 2006
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