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Americans rolling with Winter Games 1 month away

Lindsey Vonn, of the United States, salutes after winning a women's World Cup Super-G alpine skiing competition, in Haus im Ennstal, Austria, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2010. Lindsey Vonn, of the United States, salutes after winning a women's World Cup Super-G alpine skiing competition, in Haus im Ennstal, Austria, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2010. (AP Photo/Giovanni Auletta)
By Arnie Stapleton
AP Sports Writer / January 11, 2010

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The success of Lindsey Vonn on the ski slopes, Tim Burke in biathlon and Billy Demong and Todd Lodwick in Nordic combined is giving the U.S. a considerable lift a month before the Olympics.

With a string of World Cup conquests across Europe, the four highlighted a historic weekend for the Americans gearing up for Vancouver.

By piling on the podiums, the Americans are raising expectations -- both their own and others' -- for a fruitful Winter Games.

Vonn said these triumphs are giving the U.S. "good energy that we need going forward."

"Definitely, I think the U.S. team in all areas is doing really well. I've been reading so many headlines of other athletes having success: Billy Demong, Todd Lodwick, Shaun White, Lindsey Jacobellis," Vonn said Monday via teleconference from Flachau, Austria, where she's preparing for a World Cup slalom race Tuesday night.

Vonn, the reigning World Cup champion, dominated three days of speed racing in Austria as no American had done before. Not even a bruised left arm, which she hurt in a crash during a giant slalom race two weeks ago, could prevent her from winning two downhills and a super-G.

Demong and Lodwick made U.S. Nordic combined history with a 1-2 finish in Italy, becoming the first Americans in the sport to mount a World Cup podium together.

And in Germany, Burke retook the overall lead in the biathlon World Cup by finishing second to five-time Olympic champion Ole Einar Bjoerndalen of Norway. It was the first podium finish by a U.S. biathlete in a men's mass start race.

Burke's third podium in two months -- and in three different disciplines -- cemented his status as a favorite in Vancouver, where he'll try to become the first U.S. biathlete to medal at an Olympics.

Also, Jacobellis and Nate Holland had first-place finishes in snowboardcross World Cup races in Austria and Americans collected three more medals in the sliding sports. Erin Hamlin won a bronze in luge and U.S. pilots Steven Holcomb and John Napier claimed second- and third-place finishes behind Olympic champion Andre Lange of Germany in the four-man World Cup bobsled races in Koeingssee, Germany.

In California, White punched his ticket to Vancouver with a victory in the U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix, the second win of the season for the defending Olympic halfpipe champion.

And in Anchorage, America's best cross country skier, Kikkan Randall, continued her preparations for the Olympics by winning the 1.4-kilometer classic sprint race for a sweep of women's events at the 2010 U.S. Cross Country Ski Championships.

"It's really, really cool to see how much depth we have all around in all of our winter sports," Vonn said. "I think everyone's really positive and optimistic about the Olympics."

Three wins in Haus im Ennstal, Austria, raised Vonn's total to 28 victories, putting her at No. 2 on the all-time list of American skiers, three titles behind Bode Miller, who, by the way, is working his way back from a tender right ankle he twisted while playing volleyball last month.

No other American downhill skier has ever won on three straight days.

"Three in a row definitely helps my confidence. It's just good to know that I can ski well under pressure," Vonn said.

The Americans' successes on the eve of the 2010 Games makes for a sweet symphony to the U.S. Olympic Committee, which funded America's winter sports to the tune of $58.2 million for the current four-year period, a 55 percent increase over 2003-06.

The USOC is especially proud of the leaps in biathlon, Nordic combined and cross-country skiing, sports where the Americans are aiming for breakthroughs in Vancouver, goals that look very realistic based on triumphs on the World Cup circuits the last two years.

"It shows the plan is working and that's an incredible testimony to the (national governing bodies) putting a lot of effort into drawing up a game plan, advancing with the training, getting athletes in the pipeline," said Mike English, the USOC's chief of sport performance. "It's showing we're serious and that we've got a good plan in place."

Burke, who has claimed World Cup podiums in the 20-kilometer individual race, the 10-kilometer sprint and the men's mass start, will race those three disciplines at the Olympics next month along with the pursuit and the relay, giving him five shots at a medal.

"I really don't prefer any of the styles over the other," Burke said. "I've been on three podiums this year on three different style races and I feel comfortable on each. Of course, if my skiing form is really on at the time, then I'll prefer the sprint, but if not, then I'll be really keying on the individual race."

Andy Newell of Shaftsbury, Vt., is steadily becoming one of the fastest men in cross-country skiing. At the World Cup ski sprint opener in Finland this season, he was the only U.S. skier to make it past qualifications in the classic technique race, the kind of sprint that will be used in the 2010 Olympics.

No longer can anyone question whether the Americans are one of the best teams in the world.

The U.S. ski team's coming-out party occurred at the Nordic world championships in the Czech Republic last year, when the Americans stunned the ski world by grabbing six medals, including four golds, stirring up the traditional order of the sport and finally shedding their image as a fringe team.

In the 35 previous world championships since 1925, the U.S. won a total of three medals -- a gold, a silver and a bronze -- and never more than one at the same worlds. Last year, they had four golds, a silver and a bronze and trailed only perennial power Norway in the medals table.

That led the International Ski Federation to express hope that interest in the sport in the U.S. would take off if those results can be repeated at the Vancouver Olympics.

Last weekend's successes across the globe only elevated those expectations back home.

"It's encouraging, knowing we're 33 days from the Games," English said. "The challenge now is to make sure we get through all the final World Cups and team selections and nominations ... and athletes stay healthy. That's their focus.

"They understand what Feb. 12 is, what it's the beginning of. They have that baked into their plans. It's a tough season, still in the middle of the season. The important thing we want to recognize is they've had this as part of their plan. Staying healthy is an important element of this, especially in winter sports. The high-performance plans are tailored toward the Games coming up."

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AP National Writer Eddie Pells in Denver, AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Adelboden, Switzerland, and Associated Press Writer Eric Willemsen in Flachau, Austria, contributed to this report.