To the traditional powers of skiing Switzerland, Austria and Italy all this freestyle and half-pipe stuff is strictly New World. A course, a clock and a mountain are challenge enough. The Austrians have owned Alpine skiing lately, but the men's team has been devastated by injuries, most significantly to Hermann (the Herminator) Maier, a double gold- medal winner at Nagano who shattered his leg in a motorcycle accident last summer. Five other top Austrians are also on the shelf. Yet Austria is so deep it can easily claim gold through Stephan Eberharter, currently the No. 1 ranked skier on tour.
Eberharter has been a downhill monster, winning four races this season in addition to two super-Gs. The downhill course at Snowbasin already has racers tightening their boots because it's so demanding. "It doesn't favor heavy skiers," says former Olympian Billy Kidd, now director of skiing at Steamboat. "There's no place where you sit in your tuck. It's very technical. You are always on an edge. Eberharter will be tough to beat in downhill and super-G." Austria also has the top-ranked woman in Michaela Dorfmeister, another speed freak. To find Europe's best mogul skiers you've got to go north to Scandinavia. Norway's Kari Traa has won six of eight World Cup contests this season. "There's not very much that separates all the women," says Shannon Bahrke, a top-ranked American, but Traa has managed.
On the men's side, the Finns have Janne Lahtela and Mikko Ronkainen, who dominated last year's tour but have struggled with injuries this year. In aerials, which has a strong gymnastics component, it's no surprise that Eastern European countries will contest. Belarus features top women's aerialist Alla Tsuper, as well as the men's No. 2, Alexei Grichin. It is a surprise that Australia, hardly a ski power, has a strong contender in Jacqui Cooper. Canada, an aerial force, will offer Veronika Bauer and Jeff Bean. Although the U.S. will dominate the snowboarding half-pipe, its riders are basically uninterested in the parallel giant-slalom race. Look for Slovenia's Dejan Kosir to take the men's duel, while Frenchwomen Isabelle Blanc and Karine Ruby will be tough to keep off the medals stand.