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Olympic flame burning in Mendes, Betschart

Steve Yingling

Wisi Betschart and Jonna Mendes have never wanted to win a ski race as much as they do over the next two days.

There’s so much on the line in the U.S. Ski Team Gold Cup that the two South Lake Tahoe Alpine skiers can reshape their futures with one unexpected victory. Both are entered in the downhill and super-G at the inaugural Olympic qualifying event in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Some of the rewards dangling in front of their skis for victory are an Olympic berth, $10,000 and possibly a regular spot on the World Cup circuit.

“It’s the easiest way to make the Olympics, but it’s also the easiest chance for everyone since no one has qualified yet,” Betschart said.

U.S. coach Bill Egan informed Betschart, 21, and other men’s team members on Wednesday night that no one has cinched an Olympic spot, not even former Olympic gold medalist Tommy Moe or A.J. Kitt.

“The coaches told us that this month coming up is pretty much going to tell our future. The way the quota is set up right now, you have to have three top 18s, two top 10s and one top 5 in World Cup, and none of these guys have done that this year, so the coaches told us if one of us wins on the Europa Cup circuit, we have a good chance of going to the Olympics,” said Betschart, who will compete in six Europa Cup downhills and super-Gs in January.

While Betschart has yet to appear in a World Cup event this season, the 18-year-old Mendes has been a regular on the women’s side. In fact, she scored a career-best 26th finish in a super-G last month in British Columbia. Consequently, Mendes may not need to win this weekend to make the Olympics.

“It’s really up in the air right now,” Mendes said. “I’m not hearing a lot about it, and in my opinion, it’s not going to have a lot to do with our coaches. I think it will have a lot to do with what CEO Bill Marolt has to say. If he only goes with the people who have a shot of winning a medal, I have no chance. Or he could decide to think about the future and say, ‘She might have a chance of winning in 2002 or 2006, so let’s send her.'”

Winning a Gold Cup event won’t be easy, though, considering who Mendes and Betschart have to beat.

Picabo Street, who just returned from a torn ancruciate knee ligament, is a clear-cut favorite to walk away with $20,000 this weekend. Mendes really admires the way the confident Olympic medalist has bounced back from injury and regained her elite World Cup status.

“It’s kind of hard not to admire someone in the sport who has excelled so much,” Mendes said. “It’s been hard for us to bring skiers up the ranks, compared to Europe, where the sport centers. It’s really nice to see someone from America get in there and do so well.

“Picabo’s intimidating to some people because she’s so good. She talks about winning Olympic medals all the time. She’s got confidence and didn’t think twice that she would come back.”

Street’s quick resurgence doesn’t bode well for a Mendes victory. However, Mendes says she’d be happy with a top-3 performance.

“Second place is the first loser,” said Mendes, who, like the other skiers, knows that second place won’t receive anything but a medal. “I know if I got second place, it would be good for me, but then again, it would be really disappointing to know that I was that close. If I actually did get second place and realized I was a tenth of a second out, I would be saying, ‘What if I stuck my hands out a little further or what if i was a little bit lower.'”

Some technical errors have prevented Betschart from realizing his potential this season, so he’s optimistic that the perfect run could come as soon as a Gold Cup race.

“If I have a great run, I’ll be right there,” Betschart said. “I just need to clean up my runs a little bit. It’s a real short course, so there’s less chance of a mistake. And I’ve raced here an couple of times, so I know exactly what to do and what not to do.”

Betschart trained with speed specialists Moe, Kitt and Kyle Rasmussen during the preseason and held his own.

“I had some great training days with those guys this summer and I was mixing with them in the top three,” he said. “I just need to carry that over to race day.”

Both of the Heavenly Ski Foundation products have ideas of how they would spend $10,000 if they won.

“I’d go to Disneyland, that would be great,” Betschart joked.

“I’d go somewhere warm that has never seen snow,” Mendes said.

Of course, they’d go to Nagano Japan as well, and that wouldn’t be so bad either.


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