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VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The highlight of Thursday's Olympic action will be the men's figure skating free program -- but that isn't the only event you should check out. Here are our picks:
Biathlon: Men's 20km Individual
Things did not go as planned for American Tim Burke in Sunday's 10-kilometer sprint; he got caught in a midrace snowstorm, missed three shots and finished 47th. Because the finish in the 10km race decided the start order for Tuesday's pursuit, Burke didn't start until sprint gold medalist Vincent Jay of France had already been on the course for more than three minutes. It was an impossible amount of time to make up, and Burke finished 46th. On Thursday, Burke will look for redemption in the 20km race and try to become the first American to win an Olympic medal in biathlon. He'll have to watch out for Jay, and for Norwegian star Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, who is in search of his 10th Olympic medal.
|Kelly Clark enters the Olympics at the top of her game.|
Snowboarding: Women's Halfpipe Finals
In 2006, the American women were a few points from sweeping the podium. This year should be no different. The U.S. team is composed of the same four riders who competed in the Torino Olympics, and this year, they're not content to share the spotlight. Kelly Clark, the 2002 Olympic gold medalist, won nearly every contest she entered in the past year and a half and is riding with unmatched amplitude -- something Olympic judges seem to value above all. At contests when Clark found herself in second place, she usually was taking a backseat to 2006 silver medalist Gretchen Bleiler, who changed her run this season and is peaking when it counts. Bleiler beat her teammates in one of the most progressive contests in women's halfpipe history at the X Games last month. Returning Olympic gold medalist Hannah Teter, Jiayu Liu of Japan and Torah Bright of Australia also all have solid chances of landing on the podium.
Figure Skating: Men's Free Program
The gloves will be dropped Thursday night at the Pacific Coliseum. Although reigning Olympic champion Evgeni Plushenko of Russia landed a perfect quadruple toe-loop and posted a new Olympic record with a score of 90.85 in the free skate Tuesday night, he is just .55 points ahead of American Evan Lysacek in second and .6 points ahead of Japan's Daisuke Takahashi in third. And neither of those men did a quad. Takahashi and Lysacek both scored significantly higher than Plushenko in the component score (the old artistic impression number), picking up the slack from the executed elements column. The free skate will pit athleticism against artistry. Plushenko has never been known for the latter, and Lysacek will not do a quad. In his long program, Takahashi will have both.
Men's Hockey: USA vs. Norway and Canada vs. Switzerland
Women's Hockey: USA vs. Finland
The American and Canadian men's teams will be in action again Thursday at Canada Hockey Place, this time against Norway and Switzerland. It's unlikely either team will be tested. And with the lopsided nature of the scores coming out of the women's tournament, you'd expect the same from the U.S. women against Finland. But don't forget: It was the scrappy Finns who upset the Americans in Torino in 2006, forcing them to settle for the worst finish in their brief Olympic history: a bronze.
Speedskating: Women's 1000m
Two-time Olympian Christine Nesbitt of London, Ontario, is favored for gold in Thursday night's race at the Richmond Olympic Oval. She's the reigning world champ at the distance and has won all four 1,000-meter World Cup races this season. Nesbitt's toughest challengers will be Annette Gerritsen of the Netherlands, Japan's Nao Kodaira and China's Beixing Wang. Ottawa's Kristina Groves is a sleeper in the race; there's no telling how much inspiration she'll draw from the home crowd. Americans Jennifer Rodriguez and Heather Richardson also will compete.
Skeleton: Men's and Women's, Day 1
American skeleton racers Noelle Pikus-Pace and Zach Lund have been waiting a long time for this. Lund was kicked out of Torino on the eve of the 2006 Games for testing positive for a banned substance in his hair-restoration medicine (he was later cleared of any wrongdoing). Pikus-Pace's right leg was literally shattered in the fall of 2005 when she was struck by an out-of-control bobsled in Calgary, Alberta. Both will look to fulfill their Olympic medal dreams Thursday night at the Whistler Sliding Centre. It won't be easy. Pikus-Pace and teammate Katie Uhlaender are ranked sixth and seventh in the world, but all three Torino medalists -- Maya Pedersen of Switzerland, Shelley Rudman of Great Britain and Mellisa Hollingsworth of Canada -- are returning. Lund will have his hands full, too. Martins Dukurs of Latvia won seven World Cup medals this season. Canada's Jon Montgomery has posted lightning-fast training times all week, and countryman Jeff Pain holds the official track record. And Germans Frank Rommel, Sandro Stielicke and Michi Halilovic are all contenders, as well.