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US ski jumpers struggle to make ends meet

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — No money, no opening ceremonies and maybe no really meaningful competition. It's not easy being a part of the U.S. Olympic Ski Jumping team.

Not only will the cash-starved American squad miss the opening ceremony Friday night, they face the possibility of being eliminated from their first event before the Olympic cauldron is even lit. Qualifying for individual normal hill jumping starts Friday afternoon in Whistler, a two-hour ride from Vancouver, site of the opening ceremony.

With first jumps for qualifiers on Saturday morning, Anders Johnson, Nick Alexander and Peter Frenette can't be in both places.

"I definitely wanted to go to opening ceremonies but wasn't going to be too bummed out if I couldn't," said Frenette, a 17-year-old from Lake Placid, N.Y. "It's more important to do well."

It takes a lot to "bum out" the three young men competing in a sport that hasn't received full funding since the 2006 Games. Today's jumpers rely on family for most of the $20,000 a year it costs each compete, choosing their sport ahead of college even if it means mowing lawns, washing dishes, and scooping ice cream to pay the bills.

They started their own private team, called Project X, from scratch three years ago, hiring their own coach for a group of top U.S. juniors, and finding their own sponsors.

"It's really difficult to do with how the economy is now," Johnson said. "It's huge sacrifice for us. Nick and I should be moving onto college, but we're sacrificing that part of our life for our sport. And it's an even bigger sacrifice for our family to work that extra bit to keep that Olympic dream alive for us."

They stay in the cheapest hotels they can find, wax their own skis and even sew their own ski suits to keep going.

"It's just a leap of faith that one day we will get funding if results are improving," Frenette said.

They have, with Alexander, a 21-year-old from Lebanon, N.H., qualifying for six International Ski Federation (FIS) World Cups. Anders Johnson, 20, competed in Turin, Italy, in 2006 before blowing out his knee last summer, and Frenette is coming off a top-20 finish in Japan. As if the pressure of making it past Olympic qualifying weren't enough, they are keenly away how much a strong showing would mean to their sport.

"Ski jumping isn't exactly a huge sport in the U.S., and it's kind of a constant struggle for us to make it well known," said Johnson, who came back from a torn ACL in July in just three months and qualified for the Olympics at the last minute. "It's definitely tough for us because we don't have much support, and finances are pretty rough for our team. We do best we can, but it takes a few breakthrough results to get yourself known."

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WOMEN'S MOGULS TEAM: The U.S. Olympic women's moguls team arrived in Vancouver on Monday to heightened medal expectations after finishing first through fourth at a World Cup event in Lake Placid, N.Y., last month. Hannah Kearney, Shannon Bahrke and Heather McPhie all finished on the podium, with Michelle Roark fourth.

"It's incredible to be part of a U.S. sweep right before the games, and maybe it is pressure and more attention from American media," Kearney said. "But I would be excited to get the public behind us because we have four people with a really good chance at a medal, so tune in."

Any added pressure on the U.S. team is nothing, however, compared to the hype surrounding Canadian gold-medal favorite Jennifer Heil. Notably absent at the recent American-dominated races in Lake Placid, Heil is the defending Olympic champion.

"I can sort of imagine what it would be like, put myself in her shoes, and I don't envy it," said Kearney, a World Cup champion who went into the 2006 Games as a medal favorite but never made it out of qualifying. "It depends how she handles it, but I did just learn that Canada has never won a gold medal as an Olympic host. She seems like she's got it pretty well figured out how not to internalize those things and have it affect her performance, but who knows? At one point this season I said I really want to go into the Olympics as the favorite because that would mean I was skiing incredibly well and dominating. But you know what, being the 'underdog' is easier."

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UNBEATABLE BUT INSPIRATIONAL: The brass for Canada's snowboard team spent a good portion of their half-hour press conference talking about increased funding and what it means to their squads. They talked at length about how the best support in the program's history had produced the best Canadian teams ever, citing 26 World Cup and championships medals last season as an example, and boldly called for up to five medals as 2010 Olympic hosts.

They were not, however, predicting any upset of American Shaun White, the reigning gold medalist in the halfpipe.

"That would be a pleasant surprise," said Christian Hrab, director of high-performance for Canada's snowboard teams.

"We can give thanks to Shaun for pushing snowboarding — not just our team but all the world's teams and all of snowboarding — and inventing the future, if you will. What he's done and what he is doing is fantastic. He's helped a lot of people open their eyes to the possibilities of acrobatics in the half pipe."