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Mendes amazing in first Olympics

Michael Traum and Associated Press

HAKUBA, Japan (AP) – What an Olympics. South Lake Tahoe’s Jonna Mendes finished 14th overall in the women’s combined event (Monday night, PST), capping off a string of impressive finishes in her first ever Olympic games.

“Whew! Here we go. What an Olympics,” said Mendes’ Heavenly Ski Foundation coach, Noel Dufty. “No one knows how good that really is. She finished all her events and got better and better each time. It’s phenomenal.”

Mendes, 18, was also 17th in the downhill and 32nd in the super-G. Her combined time was 2:48.59.

Now with the Olympics under her belt, she’ll next compete in the Junior Worlds in Poland, from where Dufty thinks Mendes could come home with some serious hardware.

“She beat every other competitor in her age group in the downhill at the Olympics. If she can carry this over to the Junior Worlds, we’ll see how really good she is. I think she can bring home a gold,” he said.

Katja Seizinger, racing through heavy snow, led a German sweep of the combined event Tuesday and won her second gold medal in two days.

Seizinger, who won the downhill Monday, became only the second woman in Olympic history to win three Alpine gold medals, joining slalom skier Vreni Schneider of Switzerland.

Seizinger, who also won the downhill at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, had two nearly flawless slalom runs Tuesday to wrap up her combined event victory in an aggregate time of 2 minutes, 40.74 seconds.

Martina Ertl won the silver medal in 2:40.92 and Hilde Gerg gave Germany its first 1-2-3 finish in an Olympic Alpine event by finishing in 2:41.50.

A potential star of the future, 18-year-old Caroline Lalive of Steamboat Springs, Colo., finished seventh – the best result by an American woman in the combined event since Gretchen Fraser’s silver medal in 1948.

The combined event was not held from 1952-84 at the Olympics, but was reinstated at the 1988 Calgary Games and has been contested ever since.

Lalive was in 14th place after the combined downhill, but moved up to seventh place after the first combined slalom run. Her aggregate time was 2:44.76.

”The hill was very much like Howelson Hill back in Steamboat Springs,” Lalive said after the first slalom run, ”and my coaches kept telling me to ski it just like I’ve skied that hill thousands of times.”

Seizinger, 25, will again be among the favorites in the giant slalom later this week but is not as strong in the slalom. She also was favored in the super-G last week, but finished sixth to Picabo Street, who took the gold medal.

Seizinger was fastest in the downhill portion of the combined event on Monday (Sunday night, EST), then had her margin cut by more than half on the first combined slalom run as more talented slalomers closed the gap.

But she ran a solid, if not spectacular, second slalom run and avoided making any major mistakes on the fresh snow. With delicate twists of her legs, she skipped from gate to gate – and then used her gliding speed to finish off the victory.

Seizinger was tied for third-fastest on the second slalom run, good enough to hold on for her gold medal.

The three medalists embraced at the finish line and, after standing on the podium together, the trio of German skiers ran toward fans and tossed bouquets of flowers into the stands.

The usually subdued Seizinger was all smiles as she celebrated.

”I did not expect a couple of wins here,” she said. ”I did not expect my victory and the top three finish by our team.”

Despite the steady snow, both runs of the slalom started on time – making it the first Alpine race to begin as scheduled during the Nagano Olympics.

The skiers now move to Shiga Kogen, site of the slalom and giant slalom races, where Italy’s flamboyant Alberto Tomba will make his Olympic finale.

Stefanie Schuster of Austria was third heading into the final slalom run, but was overtaken by Gerg for the bronze medal and finished fourth in 2:42.25.

”I haven’t skied slalom in seven years,” Schuster said. ”I started skiing as a slalom specialist before I moved into the downhill. I usually spend only three or four days a year training in the slalom. I’m kind of surprised I skied so well on the first run.”

Pernilla Wiberg of Sweden, the defending Olympic champion in the combined event and a medal favorite after placing second in the combined downhill, fell five gates before the finish of the first slalom run.

”I straddled a gate, that’s a normal mistake in slalom,” she said. ”When I came down, I saw the finish line too early maybe.”

Renate Goetschl of Austria, who was third after the combined downhill, also missed a gate on the first slalom run.

Alexandra Shaffer of Aspen, Colo., was ninth in 2:45.24, Jonna Mendes of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., was 14th in 2:48.59 and Kirsten Clark of Raymond, Maine, was 18th in 2:52.25.

AP-WS-02-16-98 2356EST

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