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Aiming Now for Sochi 2014

By Alan Abrahamson | July 21, 2012, 12 p.m. (ET)

Jen Hudak

LONDON -- It's a week before the Summer Games, and of course for most Americans the focus is appropriately and properly on the runners, the swimmers, the wrestlers and all the others on the 529-person U.S. team who have worked so hard for four years to get here.

But in just a little bit over 18 short months, which for most of us seems so difficult to fathom in the midst of the summer of 2012, the Olympic calendar will rush toward February 2014, and the Sochi Winter Games.

And a little-noticed announcement Friday in Salt Lake City may make all the difference in the way the U.S. team performs in those 2014 Games -- along with the vision and the strategy of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Assn., underway now, even as these Summer Games occupy everyone else's attention.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, along with USSA chief executive Bill Marolt, announced that the state will play host to five winter action sports events, including the announcement of the first U.S. freeskiing Olympic team, leading up to the 2014 Games.

Utah's Canyons Resorts, Deer Valley Resort and Park City Mountain Resort will stage events in freestyle skiing, freeskiing and snowboarding during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. The series will end up with the announcement of the Olympic freeskiing team in January, 2014.

So what?

Here's what's at play -- a massive shift in the way medals will be given out at the Winter Games.

The U.S. ski program, anticipating that, is shifting the way it's doing business. 

It's not abandoning alpine. Hardly. Not with the likes of Lindsey Vonn, Ted Ligety and Bode Miller, and young stars such as Mikaela Shiffrin. 

But when confronting obvious numbers, you've got to be obvious in response:

Forty percent of USSA's medals have been won by snowboarding since it became a medal sport in 1998.

In 2006, for instance, snowboarding accounted for seven of the 10 medals USSA won at the Torino Olympics.

In 2010, if you include ski cross as a freeskiing event … plus bordercross … plus halfpipe snowboarding … plus parallel giant slalom … the count reached 24 medal opportunities. 

In 2014, because of new events added last year by the International Olympic Committee in snowboarding and freeskiing, there will be 48 medal opportunities. 

That's for men and women -- 24 and 24, a total of 48.

Again, to be completely obvious, these are sports in which American athletes rock. Or, to use the words of Jeremy Forster, the U.S. program's snowboard and freeskiing director, "It's a pretty special time."

Tom Wallisch, who won the Dew Tour overall cup and finished first in the AFP slopestyle World Rankings in 2010 and 2012, said, "All these action sports-style events are ruled by Americans. They are all ours for the taking."

Wallisch turns 25 soon and was named the ESPN Action Sport Athlete of the Year. Even so, he said, "The kids I hang out with these days are 17," adding, "I would almost put a lot of money on the fact that some American will win my event. There are so many competitive American kids."

Jen Hudak, also 25, was the queen of halfpipe skiing two years ago -- sweeping the X Games super pipe in both Aspen and Tignes, France, and topping the overall AFP series rankings, the freeskiing equivalent of a World Cup globe.

Early this year, she suffered a torn ACL. Now she's back at it -- aiming, like everyone else on the U.S. Ski Team, toward Sochi. Already.

She said, "It wasn't like we were working toward nothing." Even when halfpipe skiing wasn't on the Olympic program, "We were planning for these Olympics, in a sense."

And now it's really on: "I saw the whole thing coming together, eventually. I believed in it. It's all coming together. The fact that Sochi is 18 months away is nerve-wracking, exciting and shocking -- all at the same time."