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Saturday, January 30, 2010
Get a head start on Vancouver Olympics buzz

Associated Press

A skier from Ghana? Americans starring in biathlon and Nordic combined? Here's a head start on some of the stories everybody will be buzzing about once the Vancouver Olympics begin.

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The art of riding the halfpipe evolves quickly and lots of things have changed since the last Olympics, much of it driven by the increase in the height of the pipe from 18 to 22 feet.

It has allowed riders to take bigger risks, mainly in the form of what's known as a double-corkscrew, or double-cork jump, in which the rider goes up the wall and flips twice, head over feet, while doing any number of combinations of between one and 3½ spins.

Up until about December, it appeared riders who could string two double-cork jumps together during a run would have the best chance of winning Olympic gold. And it appeared the world's best, Shaun White, along with Louie Vito of "Dancing with the Stars" fame, and a Swiss star named Iouri Podladtchikov -- "I-Pod" -- were among the very few who could do it.

Unexpectedly, though, a rider named Danny Davis came along and not only strung two together, but added a third double-cork at the end of his run to beat White in a meet in Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

That sent White back to the drawing board to work on the most difficult double cork in the world, the Double McTwist 1260 -- in which he crams 3½ rotations into his two head-over-heels flips. Dangerous? Yes. But a winner, indeed. He took the last two Olympic qualifying events with ease, in part because of that and in part because he flies higher above the pipe than anyone in the world.

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The Snow Leopard is not Eddie the Eagle.

Fans fell for Michael Edwards at the 1988 Calgary Games, cheering for the first British man to compete in Olympic ski jumping despite -- or, probably, because of -- his lack of experience and ability, and his last-place finish.

"I am not, and will not end up being, an Eddie the Eagle at the end of the day," said Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong, a skier from that winter sports hotbed of Ghana. "Because, to me, sports is a serious thing."

Nkrumah-Acheampong is the West African nation's first Winter Olympian.

Nicknamed "The Snow Leopard," he skis in a leopard-print racing suit. He's been in the sport for only about five years, and much of his training is done at an indoor ski hill about an hour north of London.

"It is like crossing the Sahara desert and getting to the end and getting a very cold drink and a lovely cold shower," he said of making the Olympics. "You think about, 'Wow, did I make that journey?"

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Remember Brian Orser?

He was half of the "Battle of the Brians" at the 1988 Calgary Games, the showdown in men's figure skating between American Brian Boitano and the Canadian. Boitano edged his rival to win.

Now Orser has another chance to celebrate a gold medal in his home country. He coaches the favorite on the women's side, reigning world champion Kim Yu-na of South Korea.

"I don't know if it would take any of the sting away from '88, actually, because this is all her thing and I want it to be her experience," he said. "I've moved on from the Olympics in '88. It took a long time -- it took a really long time -- to put it into perspective.

"And now I find myself where I am now, and it's really, really exciting. All that knowledge and all that wisdom -- what if I had won? I wouldn't have learned any lessons that now I can pass it on to Yu-na."

Before last season, the pressure was starting to get to Kim. One day, Orser took her to the middle of the ice and told her, "There's nobody else in this rink that knows what you're going through, except for me."

"I could just see her shoulders come down, and she took a deep breath," he recalled. "I said, 'You've got to skate for you.' I think that helped her a lot, just knowing there's somebody in this space that actually really knows."

There could have been a Battle of the Coach Brians in Vancouver. Boitano does some work with American Alissa Czisny, but the defending U.S. champion failed to qualify.

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Time to dig out that "Cool Runnings" DVD. The Jamaicans are back.

And not just in bobsled.

Like the group that reached the 1988 Calgary Olympics and inspired the Disney movie, some aspiring track stars from the Caribbean island nation are headed to Vancouver. Though they'd appreciate if you'd hold off on the "Cool Runnings" jokes.

And their driver would prefer to be known for more than his distinctive name. Hannukkah Wallace's mother was pregnant and working at a jewelry store at the airport in Kingston when a tourist suggested "Hanukkah" for her soon-to-be-born son's name. Somehow an extra "n" got added along the way.

The bobsledders probably aren't medal contenders, but an athlete in another sport could make the podium under the black, green and yellow flag. Errol Kerr is a contender in the new Olympic event of skicross.

Born to an American mother and a Jamaican father, Kerr grew up a dual citizen between Lake Tahoe, where he moved with his mother as a child, and Westmoreland, Jamaica's westernmost parish.

His background in Alpine skiing, motocross and BMX makes him the perfect fit for the hybrid sport, in which Kerr could win the first Winter Olympic medal for the country of his late father. Skicross features a mass start and head-to-head racing on a course full of turns and banks.

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Biathlon combines cross-country skiing with rifle marksmanship and is the most popular winter sport in Europe; Nordic combined couples the elegance and technical grace of ski jumping with the stamina of cross-country skiing.

American fans may want to brush up on these sports, because American athletes have real chances to win the country's first Olympic medal in each.

At last year's Nordic world championships, Todd Lodwick and Billy Demong combined for three gold medals. The United States had won only one world championship ever in Nordic combined.

In December, Tim Burke became the first American to lead the World Cup biathlon standings. And his teammate, Jay Hakkinen, nearly broke the medal drought in Turin, when a split bullet that hit the target but failed to drop cost him the bronze in the 10-kilometer race.

An athlete from a more traditional biathlon country also will be trying to rewrite the Olympic record books. Norway's Ole Einar Bjorndalen has won nine medals, five gold. If he repeats his feat from 2002 of sweeping four golds, he'd break fellow Norwegian Bjorn Daehlie's Winter Games mark of eight golds in cross country from 1992-98. He needs three medals of any color to match Daehlie's record 12.

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Who's missing?

The dangers of some winter sports are evident even before the games start. Several big names will be missing because of injuries.

In Alpine skiing, downhill world champion John Kucera, World Cup slalom champion Jean-Baptiste Grange and former women's overall World Cup winner Nicole Hosp are ruled out for Vancouver.

American snowboarder Kevin Pearce, one of the world's best halfpipe riders, suffered a severe brain injury in a training accident on New Year's Eve. And another American halfpipe rider, Danny Davis, is out of the Olympics because of a non-snowboarding injury.

And a doping ban will likely keep five-time Olympic speedskating champion Claudia Pechstein out of the games. The German received a two-year ban for blood doping but is appealing to Switzerland's highest court.

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Associated Press National Writers Nancy Armour and Eddie Pells, as well as AP Sports Writer Arnie Stapleton and AP Writer Graham Dunbar contributed to this report.