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    Sunday, January 4, 1998

    King emerges as star of first Olympic trials

     LAKE PLACID, N.Y. (AP) -- Rising to the moment is what the Olympic Games are all about, and so it was with Suzanne King at the first Olympic trials for the U.S. ski team.
     Instead of limiting its selection process to athletes' performances in World Cup-level competition, the ski team decided to stage a week-long competition with berths on the Olympic team going to the winners.
     So it was that King, who had been dropped from the cross-country team for lack of results, earned a trip to Nagano, Japan, by winning two races.
     Getting a ticket to Japan might seem like the ultimate achievement, but in fact it was only a step up to the ultimate goal of regaining a spot on the national roster.
     "We do have to set our standards high and those standards are that anyone who has scored World Cup points is going to be going on," cross country coach Gordy Lange said. "Suzanne is making progress, but unfortunately we can't take her all the time to these races. If she scores top 30 again she's back on the team. It's that simple, but that's the level you have to be at.
     "I told her when she wasn't on the team that I expected to see her at the Olympics. And now she's going to go for the second time and she's going to perform. She's going to be in the top 30.
     "We have a finite amount of money to spend and right now we have a small group of people that are capable of being competitive on the World Cup and that's where the money's going to go. It depends on what she does in the Olympics. If she does well then, we'll take her back to Europe."
     Where the Olympic trials paid off in King's case is that she'll be funded through the Olympics and also eaned $10,000 for winning at Lake Placid. That money will pay off a lot of her current bills; a top 30 at Nagano will then earn her a spot on the team and get her more funding for the remainder of the season.
     "One of the things I'm trying to focus on with the national team program is international performance," said Alan Ashley, athletic director for all U.S. ski team disciplines. "Coming here and doing very well is excellent, but we need to ... try to look to the future, to our international performances. That's where our national team program needs to be in the future."
     King, a former English teacher in Japan who now lives in Minneapolis, wasn't resentful over being dropped, although the timing could have been better.
     "I understand the rules of the game. I did not think there was injustice," King said. "I just felt like coming into an Olympic year and ready to go for it and not getting that support hurt some.
     "I felt put down at first. Even though I improved last year I hadn't achieved a top 30 result in an international race. I felt that this year I was doing my utmost to prepare and was going to improve again in '98 and I was looking for and hoping for some support from USOC and the U.S. ski team to continue in that progress.
     "But each year in the past few years, the criteria for qualifications has gotten more difficult. I qualified the last couple years based on points for national results. This past year, the only way for me to qualify would have been a top 30 international."
     King, who like many other winter athletes had become accustomed to being overlooked, was surprised at suddenly being thrust into the spotlight.
     "It was fantastic to get the recognition from the crowds and the media and even a cash prize in cross-country is fabulous," she said. "It's unprecedented and we're grateful for that."