Saturday, February 16, 2002
Leu breaks world record in qualifying
PARK CITY, Utah -- `Weird Eric" Bergoust has an idea that suddenly doesn't sound so strange. He thinks the American men can sweep the medals in freestyle aerials.
The once-farfetched notion didn't seem so outlandish Saturday, after the entire American team -- Bergoust, Joe Pack, Brian Currutt and Jeret Peterson -- earned spots in the 12-man Olympic final.
"Our goal is to go for broke and sweep the podium," said Bergoust, the 1998 gold medalist. "It's not unrealistic to think so. That's what we've got to start thinking about. We've got to set those goals."
The men are America's only hope for a medal in aerials. Tracy Evans and Brenda Petzold both failed to qualify for the women's final. The highlight of that qualifying round was Swiss star Evelyne Leu's world record.
Leu flipped, twisted and spun her way to a two-jump score of 203.16, breaking a four-year-old record of 200.21 held by Xiaoou Ji of China.
"I didn't think gold medal, or world record or anything," Leu said. "I just wanted to do my jump."
Now, the question is, what will she do for an encore?
The American men might be wondering the same thing.
This Fab Four combined to go 8-for-8 on their jumps, flying smoothly through the air and landing squarely on their feet on each.
By nailing a pair of his quadruple twisting-triple flips, Bergoust finished second in qualifying, behind Alexei Grichin of Belarus. Pack was third, Peterson seventh and Currutt 10th.
"I didn't know I could be this happy," said Peterson, who made the Olympic team when women's aerialist Emily Cook dropped out because of injury. "This is definitely the best day of my life. Hopefully, it will be the second-best day of my life come Tuesday. I'm loving it."
For good reason, the optimism was overflowing among the Americans, especially Bergoust, the offbeat champion who sketches out jumps on cocktail napkins, and whose coach once called him a Mozart on skis.
But they know there are other countries, and other athletes, who are good at this sport, too.
Grichin is the defending world champion.
Canadians Steve Omischl (third) was the 2000 rookie of the year and countryman Jeff Bean (ninth) finished second at an event on this course in January 2001.
"I think anyone could win," Bean said. "There's going to be a ton of pressure on the Americans. Just look at it out there."
The pro-American crowd of 14,137 also got a look at the most intriguing prospect for Tuesday's final, eighth-place qualifier Ales Valenta of the Czech Republic.
If the weather is good and the conditions are right, Valenta will try a quintuple-twisting triple flip in the finals, a trick with one more twist than what the best in the world have ever tried in competition.
Valenta landed the trick in practice earlier in the week. He concedes, however, that he's only done that a handful of times in very limited practice.
"It's not like you go out there and do 40 every day," he said. "You do a few, and hope it's going to be a lucky shot."
Bergoust doesn't want to leave anything to luck. He tinkered with the quint-twist last summer, but didn't like his form.
So, he resorted to the old standby -- the quad-twist, which is the same jump he used at the Olympics in 1994, and in 1998, when he won gold.
He came into these games the top-ranked aerialist in the world, and while his appearance on the medal stand wouldn't shock anyone, the quick ascent of the rest of the American would surely be a surprise.
Then again, it's the Olympics, and the Americans figure there's nothing wrong with thinking big.
"Just go for it," Currutt said. "I've got nothing to lose. Today was the important day. You had to put your feet down twice to get into the finals. So come Tuesday, it's just let it rip and go for the gold."