Albertville gives U.S. team fresh start U.S. Olympians hopeful on eve of 1992 games.


ALBERTVILLE, France -- Most of them weren't around for the tragicomedy at Calgary four years ago, when the U.S. Winter Olympic team took its painful pratfall. Ryan "The Speck" Heckman was a middle-schooler in Steamboat Springs. John Aalberg was a Norwegian citizen. And Herschel Walker was a Dallas Cowboy. "I never even heard of a bobsled in high school," he said. "Now I'm on the Olympic team."

More than three-quarters of the 181 American athletes who will ++ compete in the XVIth Winter Games beginning next week are newcomers. When the last U.S. squad was slipping and sliding to its worst performance in 52 years, Mr. Walker & Co. were watching from their living room couches. Now they're talking about winning medals.

Optimism is running rampant among the Yanks this week. After managing only six medals at Calgary, they could win that many golds alone this year. Speedskaters Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen should claim three between them. Freestyle skier Donna Weinbrecht is a couple of moguls ahead of the field. A.J. Kitt is the winter's hottest downhiller. And Kristi Yamaguchi comes in as world figure skating champion.

If the Americans cash in every medal they're counting on paper, they could end up with at least a dozen. That would be their best effort since the 1980 games at Lake Placid and the most medals ever by a U.S. team at a foreign Winter Olympics.

Undoubtedly, the collapse of the East German sports machine and the breakup of the Soviet Union have helped American prospects. But the U.S. team is also stronger across the board this time, thanks to a massive infusion of cash from the U.S. Olympic Committee, which has spent $28 million on its seven winter sports teams during the past quadrennium.

A look at the U.S. prospects, sport by sport:

FIGURE SKATING -- Three medals, possibly four. If Japan's Midori Ito cracks, Ms. Yamaguchi, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan will sweep the women's event. Either Todd Eldredge or Christopher Bowman should win a bronze in the men's event. And if Natasha Kuchiki and Todd Sand can regain last year's world-medalist form, they could make the award stand in pairs, too.

SPEEDSKATING -- Always a mother lode for the Americans. Ms. Blair won two medals in 1988 and she's been unbeatable in the 500 and 1,000 this winter. Mr. Jansen, who fell twice at Calgary after his sister died, now holds the world mark in the 500. Eric Flaim won a silver last time, and could medal in both the 1,000 and 1,500 now.

ICE HOCKEY -- Given an easier format than 1988 and a favorable draw that includes Italy and Poland, the Yanks should make the quarterfinals. But not since 1972 have they won a medal when the games weren't held in the States.

ALPINE SKIING -- After a dismal showing at Calgary (no skier higher than ninth), the Americans are giddy about their prospects here. Mr. Kitt, a downhiller who was a full five seconds behind the winner in 1988, is now among the world's elite. He won a World Cup race at Val d'Isere this winter, albeit on a different course. If Mr. Kitt can handle the twisty Olympic layout, he can medal. So can slalom types Julie Parisien, Diann Roffe and Eva Twardokens, who have all placed in recent World Cup races.

NORDIC SKIING -- Bill Koch won the last (and only) U.S. cross-country medal 16 years ago and he's still on the team at age 36. That's all you need to know about the American chances here. They're not in the same league with the Russians, Scandinavians and Italians. The U.S. men won't come close in jumping, although Jim Holland could crack the top 10 and the 17-year-old Heckman is a future star.

FREESTYLE SKIING -- Ms. Weinbrecht is the closest thing to a sure gold medal the Americans have in any sport, and Nelson Carmichael could grab a bronze on the men's side.

BOBSLED -- The United States hasn't won a medal here in 36 years, but with Mr. Walker providing the world's most explosive start for two sleds, it could happen here. Best chance could be in the two-man, where Mr. Walker will team with driver Brian Shimer, the only veteran from 1988.

LUGE -- Duncan Kennedy finished second in the World Cup standings, but he has a history of choking in big races. If he can put four crisp runs together, he could produce the first U.S. medal in the sport.

BIATHLON -- Josh Thompson was expected to win a medal in 1988 and came apart under the pressure. This time, nobody expects a thing from him and Mr. Thompson's recent performances have benefited. He could be the surprise American medalist of the Games.

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