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Young racers in good early showing, but veterans still look strong

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Before 30,000 screaming Yugoslav compatriots 19-year-old Rok Petrovic skied to his second slalom win of the young World Cup season last weekend. Tiger Shaw of the United States came in eighth, the best slalom finish for an American male since Phil and Steve Mahre retired in 1984 -- and who knows how long before that? Shaw had just joined the tour and still had the third best time in the blistering second run. Meanwhile, two slalom aces, World Cup champion Marc Girardelli of Luxembourg and former champ Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden, did not finish the treacherously fast course at Kranjska-Gora, Yugoslavia. All of which led a US Ski Team spokesman to observe: ``There's definitely a new generation of slalom skiers on the horizon.''

Two years ago I watched Petrovic and other young Yugoslav competitors like Mateja Svet (then 15 years old) overwhelm the opposition at the World Junior Championships at Sugarloaf, Maine. Like Sweden, Japan, and Norway, Yugoslavia has concentrated on developing young skiing talent. But the latter country, in particular, has invested heavily in screening and training young racers. The program has concentrated on not pushing kids so fast as to ``burn them out'' -- a problem in the past -- but to nurture th em carefully into world-class ski racers.

Judging from the likes of Petrovic and Svet, it's paying off. Although Petrovic had a half-second lead after the first run at Kranjska-Gora, he raced like a demon in his second run -- or, by his own definition, ``with the power of a tiger but the lightness of a bird.'' Think he might have gotten that image from a perceptive coach somewhere along the ladder?

In its own way, the US Ski Team has been trying to bring young talent along, too. After winning the increasingly prestigious NorAm (for North American) racing circuit last season, 22-year-old Felix McGrath of Norwich, Vt., has joined the World Cup tour with Shaw this year. Saturday, he finished an impressive 12th in the first run before not finishing the second.

Despite this influx of new talent, however, anyone counting Girardelli or Stenmark among the has-beens would be making a serious mistake.

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