MERIBEL, France -- OK, so you think it's easy to be a schussing superstar? Travel to Europe. Live it up in nice resorts. Spend your life up to your knees in powder and endorsements.
Meet Julie Parisien, of the U.S. Olympic women's ski team. She's not exactly broke, but she isn't rolling in dough, either.
And she's also hurt.
Within a four-day span last month, she collided with a recreational skier and had four teeth knocked out, and then clocked a gate and broke her left wrist. Now, on the verge of making her Olympic debut, she has a dental plate in her mouth -- and a cast on her wrist.
"My wrist hurts and that will affect me on the giant slalom and the slalom," she said. "My teeth are a bit of a problem for chewing. I can't eat. That limits my energy. But otherwise, I'm fine."
Actually, the U.S. women, led by Parisien and Eva Twardokens, are prepared to add their -- of speed and budding technical brilliance to the Winter Olympics.
The women's Alpine events begin tomorrow with the running of the combined in this mountain resort an hour's drive up the valley from Albertville.
Austria's Petra Kronberger, trying to recover from a small slump, is expected to begin her gold-medal assault in the combined, a two-day event that begins with a downhill and ends with a slalom.
Vreni Schneider of Switzerland also is training feverishly to sweep the giant slalom and the slalom.
But for the first time since the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, when Debbie Armstrong won the women's GS ahead of silver medalist Christin Cooper, the U.S. women are coming to the Olympics with realistic medal chances.
"It's exciting around here," Parisien said. "Skiing is becoming a much more exciting sport. It's more aggressive. There is less of a business atmosphere than it used to be. It has come back to being a sport, a way of life for us."
The U.S. team is rebuilding from a disaster at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Alberta. There, Pam Fletcher broke her leg -- before she even raced. Tamara McKinney ended her career without gaining a medal.
It was a tough, fruitless two weeks, which brought a purge of the U.S. program.
New coaches. New blood.
"We made a lot of mistakes," Twardokens said. "But we've learned from them. Now, we're much more trusted as professionals. When we say something is wrong, the coaches listen. That didn't happen before."
Suddenly, the Americans are starting to gain top 10 results on the World Cup circuit. The surge started last March in Waterville Valley, N.H., when Parisien won the GS.
"Winning didn't stun me," she said. "But what did stun me was winning the gold medal right in my back yard."
Parisien, 20, was raised on the ski slopes near her family's home in Auburn, Maine. Her brother Rob, a member of the Olympic men's team, also grew up on snow "because our mother didn't want to pay for a baby sitter," Julie said.
In the past year, Parisien has grown up on tour, learning to cope with the stress and strain of weekly racing, and weekly results. She's still bright and open, quick enough to call Italy's Alberto Tomba "a picture pig," for stumbling onto the victory stand in Waterville Valley, yet sensitive enough to skiing protocol to speak glowingly of her older teammates.
"I feel I've gained a lot of respect," she said. "I've been consistently in the top 10 in my races. And I've learned a lot about the human spirit."
But Parisien hasn't been afraid to spark the older racers on the U.S. team. She's neither aggressive nor opinionated. She simply wants to win. During the preseason training period, there was clearly some friction on the U.S. women's team. Parisien liked a reduced training schedule -- plenty of free skiing and few races. But veterans like Diann Roffe and Twardokens pushed against an envelope on snow.
"I think we're known to be a strong team," Twardokens said. "Everyone is very driven. We've had some squabbles. But we're able to sit and talk about them. And this year, with the Olympics, well, that's when the season really starts."
The season starts in Meribel, a lovely spot with a women's downhill course that is long and treacherous. It's in the technical races, though, the slalom and GS, where the United States is likely to make its medal runs.
Parisien may be hurt, but she is clearly ready for her first Olympics. A week at home, resting, going to the dentist, having her wrist re-set in a light cast, has refreshed her.
"Going home on the plane, I looked pretty bad," she said. "I had stitches in my lips. To see a girl with a facial injury . . . I'm telling you, that's not a pretty sight."
For Parisien, the prettiest sight of all would be the view from the top of a medal podium.
"All the pressure is off me, now," she said. "I consider these injuries to be a test. At the Olympics, it's the athlete who puts it all together on one day who wins, anyway. I look at my whole career as a test. This is one that I plan to pass."