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ALBERTVILLE, France -- On a bright, beautiful...


ALBERTVILLE, France -- On a bright, beautiful day, there was no snow, no fog, no rain and no punctuation marks.

AJ Kitt, so fast the periods blew off his name, came to the Olympics yesterday.

Unofficially, he is the cover boy of the Albertville Winter Games. He is an American who takes on mountains, a downhiller who streaks across ice and snow and leaves behind a white jet stream.

This drag-racer on skis took on the Bellevarde face in Val d'Isere. It was just a practice run before Sunday's Olympic main event, the men's downhill.

One by one the racers dressed in Lycra and protected by goggles and crash helmets, plunged down the tight, twisting course, flexing their muscles while taking notes at 80 mph.

There were Austrians and Swiss and Germans. And there was Kitt, the 23-year-old American who has spent a season conquering a continent.

He finished 13th overall in the practice, and then he made his way through the maze of photographers and reporters, saying over and over how happy he was with the run, how delighted he was by the layout of the course.

He's confident, now. Some might even call him a little bit arrogant.

But Kitt has skied with pressures and expectations that have built over the weeks and months of a long World Cup season.

It started in December when he came to Val d'Isere for the circuit's opening race. Seven years had passed since the last American, Bill Johnson, had won a World Cup race and then rolled the dice all the way to the 1984 Olympic downhill gold medal in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.

Johnson was a flash in the pan, a glider whose style suited the Olympic terrain.

Kitt was different. Serious, yes. But willing to take chances, too.

So here he came last December down the old OK run in Val d'Isere, the one named after two of France's great downhill champions, Henri Oreiller and Jean-Claude Killy. Kitt was flawless and just short of reckless, and he won.

"I think a good downhiller is one that skis without mistakes," he said. "It's not just an event for thick-headed muscle men."

Suddenly, this cherubic 5-foot-11, 192-pound racer became an Olympic gold-medal contender.

"This is good for skiing," Killy said. "We needed new blood. Not just another Austrian or Swiss. It adds charisma. This is good for the sport and the Olympics."

Unknown one moment, and famous the next, Kitt had to deal with sudden fame.

There were the questions about his name, AJ.

"It honestly means nothing," said the man who carries the rarely-used formal name of Alva Ross Kitt III. "It's not my initials. It's no A period J period. It's just AJ, just a short name, two letters, pronounced a little differently than most names, and that's it."

There were questions about his background.

"I went to a ski academy for high school," he said. "After high school I made the U.S. ski team, and the rest is history."

He was born in Rochester, N.Y., began racing at the age of 6, attended ski schools in Vermont and Lake Placid, N.Y., and made the U.S. team at age 18.

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