Colorado’s homegrown Olympic heroes | stanton-company.com

Colorado’s homegrown Olympic heroes

Team Colorado is a talented mixture of experience and youth that could bring home more than a half dozen medals from Vancouver.

Vail’s Lindsey Vonn is the big name, and will be a medal favorite in three alpine events.

Nordic combined athletes Todd Lodwick and Johnny Spillane, both from Steamboat Springs, will challenge for individual medals and will help make the U.S. a strong contender in the four-man team event.

Aspen’s Gretchen Bleiler is almost certain to get on the podium in snowboard halfpipe.

Skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender of Breckenridge is a two-time World Cup champion and a two-time world championship medalist. Jeremy Abbott and Rachael Flatt will make sure Coloradans pay extra attention to one of the game’s most popular events, figure skating.

Following is a closer look at some of the bigger names among Colorado Olympians.

Jeremy Abbott

figure skating

In Detroit, Jeremy Abbott found Vancouver.

His move last spring from Colorado Springs to suburban Bloomfield Hills, Mich., may not have been the only factor in the Aspen native making the Olympic team. However, speculation that he was taking a major risk in an Olympic year evaporated when he defended his national title with spectacular performances in the short and long programs in Spokane, Wash.

Abbott didn’t have as much of a problem with his longtime Colorado Springs coach, Tom Zakrajsek, as he did living at home at age 24. His newfound independence in a new city gave him just the change of pace he needed to get over the hump.

“I came out and felt real comfortable right away,” Abbott said. “I really didn’t have any adjustment problems.”

Whether he can get over the hump in world competitions is another matter. He isn’t projected as a medal favorite, not because of his skill but because of 11th-place finishes in his past two world championships.

It’s not as if Abbott can’t perform on a world stage. He entered the Grand Prix final in November as defending champion and finished fourth. But he’ll have to prove it again on the biggest stage of his life. He picked a good year to make the team. The Olympic gold medal is as wide open in the men’s competition as it has been in years.

“I’m very excited,” Abbott said. “Just to be at the Olympics has been a dream since I was little, but I’m working very hard to put myself in a position that any given day that could potentially be me (winning).”

John Henderson

Rachael Flatt

Figure skating

Not many straight-A students are nicknamed The Rock.

Rachael Flatt is. Obviously, that’s no reflection on her academics. The Cheyenne Mountain High School senior has her choice of any school from Stanford to Harvard.

She’s a rock on the ice. The 17-year- old enters the Olympic Games never having flopped at a major competition. Before winning nationals last month, she placed second as a 15- and 16-year-old and came out of nowhere to finish fifth at last year’s world championships. She won the junior worlds two years ago.

Her academic achievement is getting an increasingly amount of attention. But another aspect of her life also gives her the balance needed to perform when needed most.

“It’s called sleep,” Flatt said. “That’s all it takes. Just go to bed and not worry about what happened and get up the next morning with a fresh start and fresh ideas on what you’re going to do for the day.”

She has a remarkable string of podium finishes, thanks to her ability to stay on her feet. She landed seven triple-triples in her long program in Spokane, Wash., wobbling only once.

She’ll be a longshot to medal in Vancouver, however, due to the strength of her Asian rivals, who are expected to dominate. Flatt is slow on the ice, and her artistry hasn’t caught up yet with her technical skills.

Still, she beat gold medal favorite Kim Yu-Na in the long program at Skate America in November. And, if she hadn’t had a rare fall in her short program, she would’ve beaten the South Korean. In Vancouver, Flatt also must get past the Japanese, Italy’s Carolina Kostner and local favorite Joannie Rochette of Canada.

Chris Klug

Snowboard

The only organ transplant recipient to win a medal in Olympic competition was the comeback story of the 2002 Salt Lake Games. So what does that make Chris Klug, now that he’s on his third Winter Olympics team after missing the trip to Turin in 2006? Remarkable, that’s what.

At age 37, Klug is the oldest member of the U.S. Olympic Snowboard Team and is the only current U.S. Olympic snowboarder to have competed in the 1998 Nagano Games, where he placed sixth in the parallel giant slalom’s Olympic debut. In 2002 in Salt Lake City, he won the bronze medal in the parallel giant slalom only 18 months after receiving a life-saving liver transplant.

Klug lost his roster spot to qualifying technicalities in Turin. He created the independent America’s Snowboard Team after he and three teammates were dropped from the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association program last summer. With the help of coach Rob Roy, Klug established a private training regimen to regain his Olympic status as the top U.S. snowboard racer on the World Cup this season, despite competing with a broken wrist and hand through all five qualifying contests.

Taking a page from the Lance Armstrong playbook, the former high school All-America quarterback is approaching his return to Olympic competition as more than just an opportunity to add to his trophy case. He also is spreading awareness of the importance of organ donors and the Chris Klug Foundation (chrisklugfoundation.org) he created to help the cause.

Scott Willoughby

Gretcher Bleiler

Snowboard

To hear U.S. snowboarding coach Mike Jankowski tell it, the secret to success among the women competing for halfpipe gold in Vancouver lies in an ability to land a big, clean 900-degree spin (two-and-a-half rotations). Jankowski calls it the “900 Club,” and at the Winter X Games in her hometown last month, Aspen’s Gretchen Bleiler became the new club president.

“Finally, just everything went right,” said Bleiler, 28, after her unprecedented fourth X Games victory. “I dropped in and did a front 900, sort of corked, and I’ve never done anything like that before. And I think that set the tone for the rest of the run.”

If all goes as planned, the successful trick that placed Bleiler on the podium above 2002 Olympic gold medalist Kelly Clark and 2006 Olympic gold medalist Hannah Teter will set the tone for the rest of the season as well. The two-time Olympian and reigning silver medalist would like nothing more than to use the 900 as a boost to Olympic gold.

“I’m going there to win the gold,” she said. “Absolutely.”

It’s a realistic goal, considering the talent-stacked U.S. women’s halfpipe team (Clark, Teter and Elena Hight) that contends as a viable threat to repeat the feat of the 2002 podium sweep by the U.S. men in Salt Lake City. Clark has dominated the international field in four victories at the U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix Series this winter. Her only two losses in six events were to Bleiler — once in the Grand Prix and once at Winter X, the final contest before Vancouver.

Don’t be fooled by the kind eyes and pretty smile. Bleiler is a notoriously fierce competitor, and she has unfinished business at the Olympics. Scott Willoughby

Todd Lodwick and Johnny Spillane

Nordic combined

At the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, the U.S. nordic combined team just missed winning its first Olympic medal, finishing fourth in the four- man team event. But the team going to Vancouver has three current or former world champions.

Johnny Spillane of Steamboat Springs was the first to make history, becoming America’s first-ever nordic combined champion in 2003. Last season Todd Lodwick, also a Steamboat native, came out of retirement and won two gold medals at the world championships. Teammate Bill Demong of Vermontville, N.Y., also won gold last year.

All three figure to contend for medals in the individual events at the Olympics, and they probably make the U.S. the favorite in the team event.

Based on last year’s world championships, Lodwick and Demong would be considered Team USA’s best hopes. But Spillane has put injury problems behind him and came on strong this winter, winning a World Cup event on Jan. 3 in Oberhof, Germany, and finishing fourth four times.

Lodwick has been on the World Cup podium twice this season and is the most accomplished U.S. nordic combined skier, with six career wins and 28 podium finishes.

In the past, Lodwick has tried to do too much at big events and fallen short, but after his huge performance at the world championships last year he knows he can win without doing anything extraordinary.

Lodwick and Spillane also feel cheated because a mistake in the wax room eight years ago cost them a medal in the team event. This time they may well feel their time has come.

John Meyer

Team Colorado

Alpine skiing
Lindsey Vonn, Vail
Sarah Schleper, Vail
Alice McKennis, Glenwood Springs
Jake Zamansky, Carbondale

Freestyle skiing
Ryan St. Onge (aerials), Winter Park
Michelle Roark (moguls), Denver
Casey Puckett (skicross), Aspen

Nordic combined
Todd Lodwick, Steamboat Springs
Johnny Spillane,Steamboat Springs
Taylor Fletcher,Steamboat Springs

Snowboarding
Gretchen Bleiler (halfpipe), Aspen
Tyler Jewell (parallel GS), Steamboat Springs Chris Klug (parallel GS), Aspen

Skeleton
Katie Uhlaender, Breckenridge

Biathlon
Lanny Barnes, Durango

Figure skating
Jeremy Abbot, Bloomfield, Mich. (formerly of Aspen, Colorado Springs) Rachel Flatt, Colorado Springs

Hockey
Paul Stastny, Denver

Colorado Avalanche players named to other Olympic teams:
Peter Budaj (Slovakia)
Ruslan Salei (Belarus)

For more on this story, please visit The Denver Post Online.

Posted on: February 12, 2010