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It's one race on one day but it could forever color the career of AJ Kitt, the American who would be king of the men's downhill.

For nearly three years, now, Kitt has been among the skiing elite, attacking mountains and taking on the world's best in places like Val d'Isere, France and Kitzbuehl, Austria.

He has won some World Cup medals. And had a few taken away under circumstances layered with intrigue and mystery.

But this is his moment to race free and perhaps win the 1994 Winter Olympics men's downhill on a slope of ice and snow called Kvitfjell.

"It's only one race, no matter how I look at it," he said. "I can't change that. I can't prepare myself specifically for one day. It's too vague to expect for years in advance to say on Feb. 13, 1994, my biorhythms will be on, my diet will be at its peak, my mental abilities will be at their peak. The Olympic gold is the most important thing for an athlete's career. But to bank on it would be dumb."

Kitt speaks from hard-earned experience. Now 25, born in Rochester, N.Y., and groomed for skiing greatness at a Lake Placid high school, Alva Ross Kitt III knows every rut and bump on the World Cup circuit after nearly a decade racing downhill.

Two years ago in Albertville, France he was billed as the American most likely to claim an Olympic gold medal. He was hot, kick starting that World Cup season in December 1991 by winning the opening men's downhill on the old course at Val D'Isere. Then came the race that validated his career, a second-place finish at Kitzbuehl, site of the most famed downhill slope in the world.

But a funny thing happened to Kitt on the way to an Olympic gold medal.

He never really had a chance. The Olympic downhill course in Val D'Isere was new and tricky. Instead of a quick, straight ride down a mountain, the skiers were presented with 22 gates and detours that turned the Bernhard Russi-designed run into a bumpy beast.

"To be honest, going into the Olympics in 1992, I did not expect myself to be in the top 15," Kitt said. "It wasn't a downhill. It was more like a Super G. The guys ran the course 10 seconds slower than the women did on their own downhill course."

Still, he attacked with fury and finished ninth. It was a respectable performance, commendable even. But it was not laden with gold.

And as Kitt made his way through a roped off corral filled with reporters, he claimed over and over that he was not disappointed.

"The media went into the Olympics with their story already written about me," he said. "Only there were two endings. One ending being if I won the race, it was a story about a guy starting out well, getting better and winning the Olympics. The other ending being, the guy was disappointed. I couldn't have been more adamant that I was not disappointed. I was pleased with my result and pleased with my effort. But they just wanted to write the glory story. And they said, you must be disappointed. But I wasn't."

After the Olympics, Kitt suffered from an inevitable letdown in 1993. He was racing for the money, for the sponsors, for seemingly everything and everybody but himself.

"I didn't ski well," he said. "I faked it pretty well."

And then came two of the most peculiar races in World Cup history. Twice, Kitt barreled down a mountain to a quick lead in a World Cup race. And twice, in France and Colorado, the races were quickly canceled by officials. The not so compelling reasons: deteriorating weather and snow conditions.

Kitt didn't say it then, and he comes just a step short from saying it now, but he was robbed.

"Everyone who pays attention to the circuit is used to having Europeans on the top," he said. "The entire skiing body [the FIS] is made up of Europeans. I just think they are real comfortable with having Europeans on the top and having people outside of (( Europe on the bottom. I don't think they are prepared for an American champion. There are people out there who would do anything in their power, including cheat, to keep an American off the podium. That's discouraging to feel that way, whether it is justified or not."

After gaining nothing from two World Cup races he should have won, Kitt said, "my spirit was pretty much broken. And I just kind of just went through the motions."

Still, he was good enough to claim a bronze in the downhill at the season-ending World Championships in Japan. And he began the long process of rebuilding his confidence and style, taking one last long run to an Olympics.

Downhillers are reckless. They push an envelope of fear and fatigue. They race on an edge. But they also are calm and introspective, able to make quick decisions at 80 mph.

"Downhillers try stuff that's new," he said. "They'll try anything to go faster."

At the Olympics, Kitt will simply try to relax. No American has won the Olympic gold since Bill Johnson in Sarajevo in 1984.

Kitt says he has a chance, a real good one, to duplicate Johnson's feat. This time, the course won't beat him. The officials can't even ruin his spirit. For one day, for one race, it is simply Kitt against a mountain.

"What would it mean if I won?" he said. "It would put a lot of questions to rest."


Tomorrow: Sonja Henie revolutionized skating, becoming an international celebrity after winning the first of three Olympicgold medals, in 1928. But she is rarely remembered in her native Norway, site of this year's Games.

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